Many Christians can attest that of all the resources that have deepened their understanding of God’s Word, few have proven more important than a really good study Bible. A study Bible combines the text of Scripture with notes that help with both interpretation and application. Of course we acknowledge that there is a distinction between the words of Scripture and any other words that appear with them. Justin Taylor is correct when he says, “The most important feature in a study Bible is the horizontal line that divides the biblical text from the biblical interpretation.” That little line separates the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God from the non-inspired, possibly-errant, potentially-fallible words of men. Yet as long as we acknowledge the distinction between the two, we can find study notes a helpful supplement to the words of God.
While there are many study Bibles to choose from today, not all are equally good. In this article I want to address what distinguishes a really good study Bible from the ones that are mediocre or just plain bad. I’ll do that by offering several characteristics of a really good study Bible.
Characteristics of a Really Good Study Bible
A really good study Bible is doctrinally sound. The textual notes and other resources within a study Bible are the work of a team of editors and contributors, and the final product will necessarily reflect their doctrinal positions. A study Bible can be no more theologically sound than the theological soundness of the team that prepared it. For that reason you ought to know who has been involved. You can learn by looking for information about the general editor(s), the publisher, and the contributors. When it comes to a general editor, you may see a well-known name like J.I. Packer (ESV Study Bible), R.C. Sproul (Reformation Study Bible), or D.A. Carson (NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible) and you can assume that the notes will be consistent with their theological positions. The publisher can also sometimes provide clues. So, for example, the The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible is published by Reformation Heritage Books which is confessionally Dutch Reformed in its theology; the NIV Study Bible, on the other hand, is published by Zondervan which is much broader in its doctrinal positions. The list of contributors—the scholars who provide notes for certain books of the Bible—can also reveal names of people you may or may not consider trustworthy. As much as possible, find a study Bible that reflects your understanding of Christian doctrine so it becomes a resource you can use with confidence.
A really good study Bible has a sufficient quantity of notes. By design, study Bibles provide explanations of the text that are brief, not exhaustive. Study Bibles are not meant to be full commentaries, but miniature ones. Thus the editors must find the right balance between too few notes and too many, and thus between a study Bible that, ironically, won’t provide much help with study and a study Bible that is so substantial it is extremely expensive to print and very inconvenient to carry around. A really good study Bible is one that has sufficient quantity of notes to engage with the key texts and substantial enough notes that it answers the kinds of questions readers are asking. While this is a subjective measure, it is still an important one.
A really good study Bible is based on a really good translation. As twenty-first-century English speakers, we are blessed with an almost absurd number of Bible translations, which run the gamut from excellent to terrible. Study Bibles typically provide notes on only one translation, though there are a few exceptions. Still, the choice to use a particular study Bible is also usually the choice to read the Bible in a particular translation. If you want to use the ESV Study Bible, you’ll have to also read the ESV; if you want to use the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, you’ll have to read the NIV. Thankfully, every major high-quality translation of the Bible has at least one or two study Bibles associated with it. (Note: Bible software like Logos allows notes to be detached from translations, making it possible to read one translation with notes associated with several others. This is a feature I love.)
A really good study Bible helps sort out difficult doctrines. We are all sometimes faced with making choices related to a difficult doctrine. It could be the age of the earth or the days of creation; it could be the continuation or cessation of the miraculous gifts; it could be the timing and circumstances of Jesus’s return. The best study Bibles help the reader evaluate the options. While they may not endorse a specific understanding of a non-essential doctrine, they will at least guide the reader away from the least plausible options and toward those that are within the bounds of orthodoxy. It should be noted that a study Bible representing an individual (e.g. The MacArthur Study Bible) is more likely to provide defined positions on such matters.
A really good study Bible has helpful inline features. While the major feature of any study Bible is the commentary included in the notes beneath the scripture text, the best study Bibles include other features as well. They may offer introductions to each book of the Bible that provides information about authorship, dating, and context; introductions to the Old and New Testament or to the different genres; charts, maps, and illustrations that display important information in ways that promote understanding; cross-references that relate the current verse to others; a concordance that shows where the most important words are used within the Bible; and so on. The best of the study Bibles offer many or all of these extra features.
I consider these the major characteristics of a really good study Bible. Let me also provide a number of minor characteristics.
- A really good study Bible may be based around a stable translation. Bible translations sometimes change. The team responsible for a translation will meet on a regular or occasional basis to make small updates to the text based on updated scholarship, the changing usage of English words, or critical feedback. Readers often only learn about these changes when they hear someone else read the Bible aloud and realize there is a wording mismatch between their Bible and the other person’s. Because a study Bible can be a significant investment, it can be frustrating to buy one only to learn months later that the text has since been altered. Thus it may be best to buy a study Bible associated with a stable translation.
- A really good study Bible may have even more extra features. I have already listed a number of helpful inline features as an essential characteristic of a really good study Bible, but some go farther still by providing collections of articles, access to online editions, Bible-reading plans, and so on.
- A really good study Bible may come in multiple editions. Some people want to purchase a relatively inexpensive study Bible they can give to an interested friend; some want to purchase an heirloom Bible they can read for years and leave to their descendants. Most study Bibles come in various editions based on physical dimensions, the size of the font, the quality of the binding and cover materials, and so on.
What Study Bible Should You Use?
So, with all that in mind, what study Bible should you use? That’s a decision you’ll have to make. Thankfully, there are many that match most or all of the criteria. Speaking personally, I most often find myself turning to four of them: ESV Study Bible, NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, and CSB Study Bible (in roughly that order).
A few years ago I prepared an infographic that compares 7 study Bibles. While it is now just a little dated (e.g. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible has since been renamed NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible and the HCSB Study Bible has been replaced by the CSB Study Bible) it at least compares some of the major options.