Study Bibles have their strengths and weaknesses. When done well, they can provide quick access to pieces of information that enhance one’s understanding of Scripture. When done poorly, they provide misleading information that contributes to a facile and malformed understanding of Scripture. And for more technical reading, and especially for academic study, Study Bibles are not adequate for reference.
This page will discuss some of the pros and cons of Study Bibles in general, will go on to acknowledge some of the standouts in the field, and will then suggest further resources for someone wishing to take the next step into the study of the Bible.
The problems with study bibles
- They don’t often tell you who wrote the study material, so you can’t tell where that person is coming from and what makes him or her qualified to speak to the issue.
- The editorial committee has final cut, so the person who wrote the study material does not have a say in whether the final form of the material accurately represents the author’s own work.
- Study Bibles don’t usually cite their sources of information so there’s no easy way to fact check them or know the basis of their opinions.
- Additionally, space limitations mean that they cannot tell you about the wider range of interpretive options. Therefore, their opinions comes across as the only interpretive option.
- By printing their opinions alongside the Biblical text, they give the impression that their opinions are also divinely-inspired.
The benefits of study bibles
- They bring up ideas and questions that you may not have been aware of.
- They quickly get you deeper into the Word by bringing relevant resources alongside the Biblical passages.
- The information can be inspiring for further personal study.
- A study bible is more affordable than a personal theological library.
- Life is busy and most people don’t have the time or resources to do an extensive study on their own.
- Like Wikipedia, they can provide a good point of entry into a larger world of ideas.
OverviewBible.com has an excellent page that describes major study Bibles, their theological traditions, and their strengths. Link here.
The problems with study bibles are non-trivial, so for most personal study I would recommend a good Introduction to the Bible (listed below) rather than a study bible. If you are doing any sort of research for a class or for sermon preparation, study bibles cannot bear the weight those goals at all (see the infographic at BibTheo.com/Research for a sense of their limited utility). But if you want to use a study bible as a point of entry into the Bible, the following are noteworthy:
Keener, Craig and John Walton, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing the Life of the Ancient World to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. The authors are named on the cover and stand behind the material printed alongside the Biblical text. That transparency alone, even apart from the well-deserved and stellar reputations of Drs. Keener and Walton, make this study bible a standout among the field.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible. 5th ed, revised and expanded. Oxford’s well-deserved reputation of academic excellence helps elevate this study bible to the top of the pile in the widest range of academic settings. Also available online at Oxford Biblical Studies Online: http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/.
Barker, Kenneth, Mark Strauss, Jeannine Brown, Craig Blomberg, and Michael Williams, eds. NIV Study Bible, Fully Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020. “Over the course of nearly four years, the editorail team met for seven one-week sessions poring over every note, every article, every chart, and every essay. Their aim was to evaluate and refine every aspect of this study Bible. [There are ] thousands of new or updated notes based on historical discoveries, cultural findings, and thematic insights. [There are] over 100 new articles.” -from the publisher
Carson, D.A., ed. NIV Zondervan Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.
Produced by Dr. Carson & “60 scholars from a wide range of evangelical denominations and perspectives.” -from the publisher
NET Bible. Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press. Also at Lumina.Bible.org.
This is not really a study bible, but its 60,932 translators notes illumine the Bible as effectively as many other resources. It was composed nearly entirely by scholars with ties to Dallas Theological Seminary, so will reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of that institution and its theology.
Attridge, Harold W., ed. NRSV HarperCollins Study Bible: Including Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical Books. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006.
Produced with the Society for Biblical Literature, this study bible represents mainline academic positions on biblical topics. As Jayson Bradley on OverviewBible.com puts it, “While the HarperCollins Study Bible is a fixture in many secular classrooms and mainline seminaries, more conservative Christians are going to find some of the ecumenical and critical commentary challenging.”
ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Reflecting a conservative Evangelical tradition, the ESV Study Bible was “created by a diverse team of 95 leading Bible scholars and teachers—from 9 countries, nearly 20 denominations, and 50 seminaries, colleges, and universities.” See how they treat Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Junia (Rom 16:7), and the household code in Ephesians, especially Ephesians 5:21, to determine whether the theological perspective reflected here is insurmountably problematic.
Senior, Donald, John J. Collins, and Mary Ann Getty, eds. The Catholic Study Bible: New American Bible. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Biblical Introductions, Handbooks
- Alexander, David and Pat Alexander, eds. Zondervan Handbook to the Bible. 5th edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.
- Douglas, J.D., Merrill C. Tenney, and Moisés Silva. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary: Based on Articles from the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
- Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour. 4th edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.
- Hartin, Patrick J. and Robert A. Kugler. An Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
- Burge, Gary M., Lynn H. Cohick and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity: A survey of the New Testament within its cultural contexts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
- Elwell, Walter A. and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. 3rd ed. Encountering Biblical Studies Series. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013.
- Mackie, Tim and Jonathan Collins. The Bible Project. https://thebibleproject.com. Also at YouTube.com/thebibleproject.
- Marshall, I. Howard, Travis Stephen, and Ian Paul, Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Letters & Revelation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
- Powell, Mark Allen. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.
- Wenham, David and Steve Walton. Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Gospels & Acts. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
- Arnold, Bill T., and Bryan E. Beyer. Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey. 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015.
- Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. Revised and Updated by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington. New York: Paulist, 1984
- Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Goldingay, John. An Introduction to the Old Testament: Exploring Text, Approaches & Issues. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.
- Hill, Andrew E. and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament. 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
- Lasor, William Sanford, David Allan Hubbard, & Frederic William Bush. Old Testament Survey: the message, form, and background of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
- Longman, Tremper III, Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006
- Lucas, Ernest C. Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature. Exploring the Bible Vol. 3. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
- McConville, J. Gordon. Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets. Exploring the Bible Vol. 4. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
- Satterthwaite, Philip E. and J. Gordon McConville. Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Historical Books. Exploring the Bible Vol. 1. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.
- Wenham, Gordon J. Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch. Exploring the Bible Vol. 1. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2008.
For Further Reading
The resources listed at BibTheo.com/PastorsLibrary or BibTheo.com/Bibliography offer further suggestions for recommended reading. The Pastor’s Library page lists resources that are designed for someone who is crafting a sermon or message. The Bibliography Page lists resources that are designed for undergraduate and graduate students of the Bible.