Almost six year ago, I wrote a post called, Why You Need A Study Bible, which was much shorter than anything I write now, but the point still stands. I think that having a study Bible (or two) is crucial for someone wanting to take the next step in Bible reading. Simply put, the Bible can be difficult to understand. Not the basics – our sinfulness, the death & resurrection of Christ, and God’s redemptive plan for humanity – those are clear. However, the Bible was written thousands of years ago across more than thousand years of time, to different cultures in different languages. So, in wanting to get a better understanding of some of the intricacies of the writings, there is probably no better first step than reading the Bible with good study notes.
Study Bibles are technically nothing new, arguably the Geneva Bible, published in 1560, was the first of what we’d consider a study Bible. Of course, most people couldn’t read or afford any books, so they really didn’t take off in the post WW2 era. A plain ‘reader’ or ‘thinline’ Bible is going to be about 1,000 pages and have nothing else other than a few translation notes. Study Bibles will range from 1,500 to almost 3,000 pages and will include cross references, intros to books (or categories – wisdom, gospels, etc. – or testaments), maps, photos, reconstruction/drawings, articles, reading plans, and, of course, study notes.
The biggest impact to the size/depth is going to be those notes, which can range from a few sentences at the bottom of the page that might only cover a section or chapter to verse by verse exposition that can take up more than half the page. Similarly, book intros can be a paragraph or two to multiple pages, and the range for articles seems to be about 20 to 100, with length varying wildly depending on the study.
I just pulled up ChristianBook.com, went to Bibles, then to the Study Bibles category. It says they have 2,053 for sale. Now, this doesn’t actually mean there are over two thousand study Bibles, there is certainly an amount of duplication, due to ‘studies’ being offered in different translations (if you haven’t thought much about the different translations or have questions/want recommendations, read my post on it here or listen to the Pod for more information), different bindings (hardcover, fake/real leather, etc.), and font sizes (compact, ‘comfort’ – which is just standard, large, and for Nana – giant). Also, some listed as such are not really true study Bibles, more on that below. All told, I would venture a guess of over 100 individual study Bibles, I can think of about 30-40, and I own about a dozen (with hopes of only buying two or three more). So, let’s jump in to some broad categories in which the studies can be grouped, pros/cons, and some recommendations.
Topical – Archeology/Bible Backgrounds, Apologetics, Complete Jewish
This is an interesting category, as it is obviously varied, and is probably the smallest. That is my Apologetics Bible in the picture. This was the first (well, co-first) study Bible I bought for myself when I first started trying to read/understand the Bible better and started look into translations. The pros and cons for these types of studies are the same – they are narrowly focused. Almost all the articles and the majority of the focus of the study notes are going to be on the topic.
For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend this as your first/only study Bible. It is better to have a broader understanding. The exception would be if a particular topic just really excites you/someone you know and you use it to jump into deeper study. Finally, these types are typically going to be more scholarly, which can put them on the larger size (usually around the 2,000 mark, give or take a few hundred).
Life Stage – Mens/Womens, Teens/College, etc.
This category rightly gets a great deal of criticism, especially for become so narrow and niche, that it can be hard to get past what seems like a simple marketing ploy. I think that can be fair, one answer as to why publishers fire out new study Bibles every year is simply – because people buy them. However, I wouldn’t throw out the whole group, though maybe offer one caution, that if it has more than one modifier, it is probably too narrow/over marketed and may not be beneficial. I’d also recommend doing your research, as some aren’t actually study Bibles (more on that below).
That said, some mens/womens Bibles can really function as a great starter Bible. The ‘Every Man’ in the picture is the other study Bible I bought when I first started studying the Bible. I’m not entirely sure why I bought this one, it might have been because it was NLT, and I was looking for one of those. Some of the articles are about being a man/husband/brother/father, but there are others as well. The intros are about a page each (and include estimated time to read the book), and the study notes are good section by section (or chapter by chapter) information with a pastoral feel. There are similar books for women. If all the articles/notes are about being a man/women, I’d put it in the topical section above and would likely recommend against it.
A quick note on the teen/college, these are almost always reformatted (usually shortened/simplified) versions of general study Bibles (see next section for more info), usually with a different set of articles or verse call out that will focus on the life stage. Ignoring for a moment that too many of the articles/write-ups are going to be about sex/dating, I’d highly recommend these, especially the teen versions. In full transparency, Mrs. MMT and I both had the Teen Life Application Study Bible, which I’m fairly certain I never read. Just like I’m fairly certain I never used my Collegiate Devotional, pictured above. For college age, I’d recommend just a more general mens/womens, if the person doesn’t have a study Bible. The college ones can be a bit more marketed and often weaker on the study notes.
The strength of this category, when done correctly, is that it really functions as great way to wade into study Bibles. As I mentioned, the notes are going to be more concise and broadly applicable. For comparison, both my Collegiate and Mens in the picture above are around 1,500 pages. So, you get that extra info, but far more compact which is helpful in a daily reader or to carry around.
General – Reformation, Quest, ESV, Biblical Theology/Zondervan, Life Application
This is probably what most people think of when they think of a study Bible. Obviously, these will be broader than the topical ones listed above, but also, much more in depth than some of the mens/womens one. Though the range is still quite large, generally speaking, these will be larger than the other types. Most are going to be in the 2,000+ range, but some will push or exceed 3,000. Bibles like Quest, Reformation, or Life Application will be on that smaller side and are great starter options. Reformation stands out a bit among that group, as it is pretty narrowly focused (while not quite topical, there will be an overriding focus on ‘Reformation Theology’). However, if you are already somewhat knowledgeable in theology, or want a more narrow focus, this one is great. I made the mistake of buying the hardback, which I wouldn’t recommend. They other issue is that it is only published in ESV and KJV. If you are truly starting out with your study in the Bible and theology, Quest/Life Application are highly recommended as they their focus in their articles and other call outs will be about asking questions or high to apply scripture in your life. I would put this subcategory as the best overall place to start with a study Bible. These come with great overall notes and articles, good depth, but not quiet as overwhelming as some of the larger ones can be.
When looking around, most translations have their on study Bible (ESV, NASB, NIV, NJKV). Zondervan owns NIV, but also publishes one as a house. Crossway has essentially done this with ESV. If you enjoy a particular translation, then getting that branded study is probably a good bet. All will have multiple authors and include pretty much everything you’d expect/want in a study Bible.
The ESV Study Bible and the Zondervan (now renamed Biblical Theology, from my understanding, they are the exact same, just rebranded, so if you can find an old Zondervan for sale, it will cost about half), stand out for being quite massive (see picture above, compared to the Quest and a regular Bible). As far as I know, these are the two largest study Bible that exist.
Two other notable options are academic study Bibles, published from universities. One is the Oxford, the other ie Baylor. I believe you can only get them in NRSV (though the Oxford also comes in Anglised, which is probably the best selling in the world). I have the Oxford, which is ecumenical and the standard for many denominations, including most mainline and the Catholic church. If you are used to evangelical style studies, it may seem overly scholarly and lacking in pastoral reflection. I am not as familiar with the Baylor (but it is on my list), but I believe it leans more towards the scholarly level.
As I mentioned above, Quest/Life Application and Reformation are all great options and good ones to start. I have heard good things about for the NIV and would recommend that as well. I am not as familiar with NASB and NKJV, but based on the translation philosophy/issues, I probably would not recommend them, though I have heard a few good things from NASB. They are likely too narrowly focused. That is my main issue with the ESV as well, it is not one I would recommend (an unpopular opinion with my fellow evangelicals), and as noted in the translation post, I do not like the translation and typically try to avoid it. If you want a massive study Bible, go for the Zondervan/Biblical Theology one. It is more broadly evangelicals and will give you a better erray of articles (from most of the same writers) and with a better translation. If you are not evangelical or want a more scholarly option, go with the Oxford. Unfortunately, they do not publish nearly as many Bibles as the others, so they are most expensive, and springing for the leather instead of the hardcover is very expensive, but probably worth it in the long run. Finally, if you are Methodist/Holiness, you might want to try out the Wesley Study Bible (has his ’44 sermons’, but still a collaborative effort on the notes/intros), and similarly, if you are Southern Baptist, check out the CSB Study Bible from Lifeway (license holder for the CSB), which is the publishing arm of the SBC.
Celebrity Preacher – Ryrie, Scofield, MacArthur, Jeremiah
I would recommend against all of these for various theological reasons, but I’d also recommend against any single author study Bible. The biggest benefit of study Bibles is that you get commentary notes and articles from many people (usually over 50), many of whom have expertise in various subject throughout the Bible. You will miss something as one person cannot be an expert in the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Poetry, Greek Culture, etc. Now, most of these preachers are going to consult commentaries they way they do to prep for sermons, but it isn’t quite the same. It is for this reason that you are also going to get the most narrow theological stance and least amount of Biblical understanding. I would recommend against getting one of these, unless you already have a few and then agree almost completely with on of their stances.
Not actually study Bibles – Systematic Theology, Creeds and Confessions, ‘patriot’, most Devotional
There are a few options sold under the ‘Study Bible’ heading that aren’t really study Bibles. This is neither good nor bad, they are just marketed incorrectly. When I say the Systematic Theology one, I was expecting similar to the ‘topical’ above – short but solid study notes, and a focus on theology. Instead, it is a regular Bible with about 30 articles about theology. Kind of cool, if you looking for a regular reader and want some articles, but probably not the most economical option. This is the same with the Creeds and Confessions, which is a regular bible with various creeds and Reformed confessions as an index. For some reason, ‘Good Bless the USA’ and fake articles about American history were put into a Bible, this should certainly be avoided, for myriad reasons other than the lack of study notes. Similarly, when devotionals or popular Christian self-help books become best sellers, they often merge their daily devotions or summaries of the books into a Bible. Again, no study notes or intros, so this isn’t really marketed correctly. Finally, the Sportsman Bible (kind of my list, awaiting a better translation) doesn’t even offer articles (related to the Bible, there are, however, ones on treestand safety), but is waterproof and floats, which is cool, but not helpful for study.
I’ll wrap up with a few helpful tips in deciding what you may want to pick: first, make sure it is a good translation and one you like, most studies are licensed to publishers, which are also the licenses holders or partners with the study Bible; second actually pick up the book and look through the pages (or use the view in your browser) and get an idea of the extent of the notes, is it too little that you fear it might not be helpful or too many that may be overwhelming; finally and probably most helpful, most have an about the series section (usually three to five pages), read it and see if that is your focus and what you want out of a study Bible.
Hope this helps, leave any questions/comments below or let me know what you use and why.