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Choosing a Bible with Study Notes

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Many of the Bibles available today include some form of study notes included with the text. These Bibles are often called "study Bibles" though of course any Bible can be used for study. A Bible with study notes can make it much easier for the lay person to get background information and ideas which will help to understand the text of scripture. But there are many, many Bibles available with notes. How is one to choose such a Bible to use?

There are a number of things to consider when choosing a Bible, such as the version or translation, the theological approach of the notes and articles, the completeness of the notes, the purpose of the notes, and any particular interpretive scheme or bias applied.


Choose a Bible which is in the version which best suits your needs. For some guidelines on choosing a Bible version, try the following pages:

What's in a Version?
A simple and basic description of versions and how to make your choice.

Notes on the Major Versions
Energion Bookshelf basic notes on each of the major versions currently available.

Bible Versions Chart
Energion Bookshelf chart and basic links to find a Bible of each version. This chart is adapted from What's in a Version? listed above and available from Pacesetters Bible School.

Theological and Interpretive Approach

You can often discover the theological approach and any interpretive scheme or bias by reading the introduction to the particular version you are using. For example, The NIV Study Bible from Zondervan states simply: "Doctrinally, The NIV Study Bible reflects traditional evangelical theology." Other study Bibles, such as The New Oxford Annotated Bible simply list contributors, but if you investigate that list of contributors you will find that they represent a sort of mainstream of mainline seminaries and secular universities, and that most would be regarded as liberal or moderate by those in the evangelical stream. Many such Bibles identify their approach in the title, the New American Bible, Catholic Study Edition, being a good example. A good starting point is to read the introduction and/or preface carefully when choosing a Bible with study notes.

It would be nice to have some balance in the theological and interpretive approach, but that is difficult to attain in the limited space of a Bible with study notes. The NIV Study Bible acknowledge in its introduction to the Pentateuch that many scholars believe that the Pentateuch grew up out of many sources, but strongly supports Mosaic authorship of the whole. The Catholic Study Edition supports the multiple sources with a strong role for Moses in forming the tradition. The New Oxford Annotated Bible mentions Mosaic authorship but builds its approach entirely on the multiple source theory. A good option for getting this greater balance is to use a Bible along with a Bible handbook such as Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible or Zondervan's Handbook to the Bible. Eerdman's, for example, while teaching essentially Mosaic authorship has a nice article explaining how source criticism works.

Should I choose a Bible that basically takes my own theological approach?

It is sometimes good to get a Bible that differs from your own approach, or the approach of your church, but you can also go too far in doing so. You need to be comfortable working with the study notes on a regular basis. If all the notes do is challenge your basic approach to scripture, you may find this tiring and a detriment to good Bible study, especially in your devotions.

It is sometimes valuable to use one Bible with notes to carry with you to Sunday School or to Bible study groups and another to check occasionally for new insights and viewpoints. Choose each one carefully in order to get the broadest base of information possible without detracting from the time you have for serious study.

An additional option is to choose your Bible on the basis of the person(s) with whom you will be communicating about the scriptures. A university student in conversations with professors and fellow students might do well to choose something like The New Oxford Annotated Bible or the Oxford Study Bible because the scholars who have participated in creating those editions are accepted as authoritative over a large range of the academic community. If you do this, you will have some idea where your friends and professors and coming from, and you may also have material to quote that they will regard as authoritative.

Purpose and Completeness of the Notes

Bibles with study notes are published for a variety of reasons. Some are intended as resources for serious study and thus provide background information, including history, language, culture, dating, authorship and literary relationships. Examples of this type of study Bible include The HarperCollins Study Bible, and The NIV Study Bible. Others are basically devotional and try to guide you through study on a particular topic. A good example of this type of Bible is the Praise and Worship Study Bible (NLT) and the Holy Spirit Encounter Bible (NLT). Often a Bible will have a balance of both elements, such as the Spirit Filled Life Bible for Students, which is more devotional than historical, and the New American Bible, Catholic Study Edition, which is more historical than devotional. Each version will differ in devotional content as well, for example, The NIV Study Bible has more devotional content than the Oxford Study Bible.

Some Notes on Using Study Bibles

Some simple principles help in using a study Bible:

  1. Study the Bible itself first, using background information to help inform your study.
    This means that you will not go first to the notes that say what the passage means today, or how it should be applied, but rather to the text and then to the historical background information which may help you understand that text. Only after you have carefully studied the text itself will you compare your view to the view of others about how it applies to you. A good source of very basic information on Bible study is I Want to Study the Bible, published by Pacesetters Bible School.
  2. Don't forget which part of the text is scripture and which is not!
  3. Use a devotional Bible for devotional reading. Be aware that the notes may be focusing on something other than the major point that a Biblical author is trying to make.
  4. Avoid spiritual and intellectual inbreeding. If you are conservative or evangelical, try liberal or charismatic notes at some point. If you are liberal, check out some of the evangelical scholarship that is available.
  5. Always study with an open mind. Be prayerful and meditative. Let God speak to you through the text.

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