We are incredibly, overwhelmingly, ridiculously blessed when it comes to resources to guide us in how to understand the Bible. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the plethora (a word that should be used more often) of study Bible options out there.
If you want to dive deep into God’s word and gain deep insights from godly men and women, there are dozens, if not hundreds of study Bibles out there. A quick Amazon search brings up page after page of options, catering to every possible demographic.
Not to mention that there are good study bible apps, as well as Bible studies on every book of the Bible.
Are you a cowboy who lives in Brazil and prefers almonds over pistachios? There’s probably a study Bible designed just for you.
It’s kind of overwhelming, honestly, which is a good problem to have (I think?).
Of course, this does raise a bit of a problem: which is the best study Bible for you?
What follows is an in-depth guide to choosing a study Bible. First, I’ll lay out some general guidelines when it comes to choosing one, then I’ll make some specific recommendations about various study Bibles.
To quote The Black Eyed Peas, “Let’s get it started.”
Which Is The Best Study Bible Translation?
When it comes to study Bibles, there a LOADS of different translations. You’ve got the ESV, NIV, NASB, CSB, KJV, NLT, and numerous other options. With all these options (and acronyms – this is like the government), how can you know which one is best?
Here’s what you need to know about the different Bible translations. This may seem a bit Bible nerdy, but it’s REALLY important.
Stay with me…
Essentially Literal Bible Translations
Essentially literal study Bible translations are those that seek to examine the original Greek or Hebrew word, then translate that word into English as literally as possible.
There are rare occasions when a literal translation will make zero sense to a modern English reader, and in that case, the translation attempts to be as close to the original as possible while still making sense to the reader.
Examples of essentially literal translations are:
- English Standard Version
- Revised Standard Version
- New King James Version
- New American Standard Bible
- Holman Christian Standard Bible
Dynamic Equivalence Translations
Dynamic equivalence study Bible translations attempt to translate the Bible in a “thought-for-thought” manner. In other words, instead of translating each word individually, they attempt to translate the original thoughts behind each word and phrase.
Personally, I believe this is an inferior and unhelpful method of translation because it has the potential to introduce interpretation into the translation.
In other words, instead of simply translating the words as they were originally written, an attempt is made to interpret the meaning of the original words and then let that interpretation guide the translation.
Why does this even matter?
Because it has the potential to introduce the biases of the translators. This, in turn, can lead to words and phrases being used that weren’t originally in the text.
Leland Ryken explains it this way:
Adherents of “dynamic equivalence” (and the more recent label “functional equivalence”) do not necessarily feel obliged to translate the actual words of the original. Instead, these translators often engage in commentary on the biblical text instead of translation of it. This is done by bypassing the words of the original and offering an interpretation of its “content meaning” as distinct from its “lexical meaning.”
Overall, this is a big simplification of the two methods of translation, but I think you get the point.
Some examples of dynamic equivalence translations are:
Bottom line: If you want the best study Bible, I recommend getting an essentially literal translation.
Because you want the translation to be as close to the original as possible, while still being readable. God chose specific words to include and exclude in scripture, and our job as readers is not to change those words, but wrestle with their meaning.
The best study Bibles will be essentially literal translations of God’s word.
What Is The Best Type of Study Bible?
There are so many different types of study Bibles that it can be confusing trying to determine the best study Bible for you.
There are Bibles for men, women, college students, high-school students, kids, military members, and on and on. It’s a flabbergasting, overwhelming blessing.
Generally speaking, study Bibles fall into one of two categories:
Interpretation Centered Study Bibles
These types of study Bibles are primarily designed to help you understand the meaning of the text in each book of the Bible. In other words, they want to help you get to the heart of the author’s original intent.
Usually, these Bibles have loads of study notes underneath the text, plus maps, diagrams, cross-references, and dozens of other helpful tools.
Sometimes the study notes are written by a number of biblical scholars, such as with the ESV Study Bible, and other times they’re written primarily by a single individual, like the MacArthur Study Bible (notes by John MacArthur).
Personally, I believe the best study Bible will have study notes written by a variety of scholars. This allows you to get a variety of perspectives on a variety of texts. If all the notes are written by a single person, you’re only getting their interpretation of all the passages. This can get especially dicey if you’re getting into more difficult texts, like in the Book of Revelation.
However, this is just my personal recommendation and I certainly won’t judge you if you’re a fan of the MacArthur Study Bible or Sproul Study Bible.
Application Study Bible
If you really want to get annoying and split hairs, application Bibles aren’t technically study Bibles.
Application study Bibles tend to focus primarily (not exclusively) on helping you apply the Bible to various situations in your life. In other words, the main goal of an application study Bible is not to dig deep into the meaning of the text. Rather, it’s aim is to bring the various passages into the challenges you face.
Examples of application study Bibles include:
- Life Application Study Bible
- ESV Men’s Devotional Bible
- ESV Women’s Devotional Bible
- The Jesus Bible
A Note About Study Bible / Application Notes
One quick note about the study Bible /application portions of both types of Bibles. The original biblical manuscripts are inspired by God, infallible, and should be obeyed in all circumstances.
The notes, however, are not inspired by God. They are written by men and women and are based on their particular interpretations of scripture. While their comments can certainly be helpful in understanding the text, they don’t require obedience of any sort. Only the Bible itself commands that kind of obedience.
Best Study Bible: Interpretive or Application?
First, let me say that both interpretive and application study Bibles are wonderful resources, and calling one type the “best study Bible” probably isn’t the most helpful way to think about the subject.
However, if push comes to shove, I’ll always recommend an interpretive study Bible.
Because I believe that the Holy Spirit is primarily responsible for helping us apply God’s word to our lives. He is the one who makes convicts us of sin and righteousness. He is the one who reveals Christ to us. He is the one who comforts us in our afflictions and encourages when we’re downtrodden.
Additionally, I don’t want someone else doing the hard work of wrestling through how to apply various verses. I want to prayerfully grapple with the text, seeking God’s help to pull out the various meanings and applications.
Bottom line: When it comes to choosing the best study Bible, I would recommend one that focuses on interpretation rather than application.
Bringing It All Together: Best Study Bible Recommendations
Now let’s bring it all together. Given all the information above, what study Bible should you choose?
There are certainly going to be elements of preference involved in making your choice. Maybe your church uses one particular translation. Maybe you grew up reading and memorizing the NASB. Maybe you just like the way a particular translation feels.
Additionally, you may be a fan of Sproul or MacArthur or another expositor and want a Bible with study notes written by them.
The point is that you’ve got a lot of options.
When choosing, I would recommend using this formula (that sounds too precise, but you know what I mean):
Preferred Essentially Literal Translation + Interpretation Focused Study Bible + Contributions From Numerous Scholars = The Best Study Bible
I realize that this is an oversimplification, but I believe it gets to the heart of the matter.
What are some Bibles that fit this equation? Here are few:
ESV Study Bible
From the publisher’s website:
The ESV Study Bible was designed to help you understand the Bible in a deeper way. Created by a diverse team of 95 leading Bible scholars and teachers—from 9 countries, nearly 20 denominations, and 50 seminaries, colleges, and universities—the ESV Study Bible, Indexed features a wide array of study tools, making it a valuable resource for serious readers, students, and teachers of God’s word.
CSB Study Bible
From the publisher’s website:
To inspire you to grow in your understanding and love for God’s Word, the CSB Study Bible, includes an award-winning array of study resources including over 16,000 study notes, tools, and word studies—each tool presented on the same page as the verses it refers to. Whether you are preparing for future Bible studies or daily readings, this study Bible for men and women is the ideal resource for lifelong discipleship.
NASB Zondervan Study Bible
From the publisher’s website:
Over 20,000 notes, adapted from the bestselling NIV Zondervan Study Bible, draw on the knowledge of today’s leading experts to provide valuable commentary right where you need it. No need to flip pages to obtain important insights on biblical words, verses, and passages. An exclusive, center-column reference system guides your study with over 100,000 references. In-text maps give you an instant feel for biblical geography.
New King James Version Study Bible
From the publisher’s site:
This beautiful full-color Bible provides a complete resource for study, including thousands of notes, articles, extensive cross-references, and features contributed by top evangelical scholars. These multilayered study tools, combined with the accuracy and clarity of the New King James Version, make this Bible a perfect choice to help you understand and deeply engage with Scripture.
There are obviously differences between each of these Bibles, and scholars will debate the merits of the study notes, but overall I think these are your best bet.
The Final Word: Obedience Matters Most
Choosing the best study Bible is a helpful exercise, but ultimately obedience matters more than in-depth knowledge. To be clear, I’m not creating a dichotomy between the two, but there are scholars who know the Bible backward and forwards and yet don’t obey it.
Don’t neglect the “weightier matters” of Bible reading. God desires obedience and a heart that delights in him.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
So yes, take some time to do research before you choose a study Bible. But even more importantly, obey the word of God.