American Christianity has an interesting relationship with the Bible. Many of us claim it is our favorite book, but we know its contents much less well than citizens of other countries. I think one reason is our dual mentality of ‘no creed but the Bible,’ which leads us to know less of what we believe, and our misunderstanding of ‘Priesthood of all Believers.’
We think it’s easy to just grab the Bible, read it through, and understand everything. In good literalist fashion, I once sought to find the most literal version of the Bible I could find. That led me to the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Of course, it hadn’t crossed my mind to try and learn Koine Greek.
Reading parts of the Old Testament, I came across phrases such as, “and his nose became red.” What? Well, it’s an idiom for becoming angry. Who knew that ancient Israel didn’t use the same idioms and maxims as modern Americans? So, I conceded defeat and looked for a more ‘dynamic’ translation.
Here’s the thing, parts of the Bible are hard to understand. I found as I wanted to know and understand more, reading and re-reading the passages didn’t help. I needed more context. I needed some history or someone to explain the geography. Most of the Bible was written 2,000-3,000 years ago and some of their environmental references fell flat to someone who grew up in what used to be a malarial swamp.
So, I came to the conclusion that you really do need more info. You need to start with a Study Bible and I think you shouldn’t stop there. For now, let’s focus on the Study Bible. The two I’d recommend are the Reformation Study Bible and the The ESV Study Bible. These are massive books, with notes and insights that boarder on being a complete commentary. If you don’t want to start on something quite that large (and expensive) there are many other options.
I’d stay away from ‘topical’ type Study Bibles at this point. There are probably a thousand of these out there. There are men’s, women’s, apologetics, archeological, etc. These are too narrow for to start with, and maybe not even worth it down the end.
I personally use the Reformation Study Bible and have found it very helpful. If you have a working knowledge of Ancient Hebrew, Koine Greek, Ancient Near Eastern history/culture and Hellenistic culture, then you probably don’t need it. For the rest of us, it’s well worth it.