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Comparing Study Bible Introductions to Luke

A few weeks ago I began looking at the new NLT Study Bible, and indicated that I would use it and then comment as I went along rather than writing a review as such.

Introductory Comments

Since I’m looking at the manuscript for a new study guide to Luke that that I intend to publish, I decided to compare this study Bible with a few others that I consult regularly to see which was best suited for certain purposes. In this case, my primary purpose is making a recommendation to readers of the study guide who are generally expected to be serious lay Bible students, but not Biblical scholars.

Some of the things I look for include coverage of the critical data, particularly the traditional critical methodologies of form, source, and redaction criticism. In Luke, we would look for some discussion of the synoptic problem. Of course we’re looking for the history behind the book, the date it was written, authorship, historical background, and some chronology. I would generally expect to find most of this in a mainstream scholarly study Bibles such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible.

All of that can be interesting information, but lay readers are likely to want to get to the meat of the matter–for them, at least–and look at some applications. Here we look for discussion of overall themes and application of the material to a particular community. In this area also we’ll find the greatest variety of material. An edition may include devotional thoughts on the text, going beyond direct application to reflection.

Finally there are the “extras,” maps, illustrations, charts, and cross-references. I list “cross-references” as an extra simply because almost all study Bibles have some, and there is quite a bit of variation in how these are done. I’m not going to get into much detail on that in this post.

I’m going to leave the NLT Study Bible until last, since it is the focus here, and first write a little bit about each of the other Bibles to which I compared it.

The Learning Bible (CEV)

I frequently recommend this study Bible to new students, because it provides an introduction to some of the serious themes of Bible study with a minimum of pain. Some people might call both the CEV, on which this study Bible is based, and the style of the notes “dumbed down.” I would disagree. “Dumbing down” is a pejorative phrase that gets applied to a variety of materials, including material that is clarified for non-specialists. Writing for non-specialists always appears a bit weak to those more specialized in the field.

The Learning Bible introduction to Luke includes material on authorship and date. It discusses sources in a very general way, but does not go into detail on critical issues. (There is some additional information in the introduction to the gospels as a group.) It spends the greatest amount of time on themes in the book. While it doesn’t get generally devotional, it does provide notes on application both in the introduction and in the early text of the book. There is very little chronological information.

In terms of extras, there are extensive illustrations, carefully selected cross-references and a variety of notes with icons indicating the general category. The editors clearly made a serious effort to make this Bible user friendly. The one downside to that effort is that all of the material and its layout result in substantial volume, not likely one you’ll carry to church with you. It’s easily the largest of the study Bibles I’m comparing here.

The Oxford Study Bible (REB)

This is one of my personal favorites, both because I like the REB translation style, and because I find the notes helpful for the type of study I do quite frequently. You will find substantially more discussion of critical and textual issues in introductions and in the notes here, while you will find less application. Themes that are discussed are more purely exegetical and less in terms of application to the community. I find almost nothing in the notes that is devotional.

In the case of Luke, there is little in the introduction to Luke on critical issues, but this is again covered more in the introduction to the four gospels together. There is less discussion of themes, the outline is less thorough than the one in the Learning Bible, but the notes are more detailed, and there is no effort to limit vocabulary. Illustrations are generally nonexistent, except for a few maps in the back, and there is very little on chronology in the gospels.

I should note here that one would not expect any study Bible to be strong in all areas that I have laid out in my introductory remarks. Such a Bible would require multiple volumes. Different study Bibles are suitable for different purposes.

New Oxford Annotated Bible

I include the New Oxford Annotated Bible, not because it is one I use that regularly. (Note that I link to the more current third edition, but I’m commenting based on the 2nd edition that I have on my shelf.) I generally prefer my Oxford Study Bible. Rather, it is the required Bible for those studying for the United Methodist ministry, at least in our conference. (I’m not really well enough acquainted with the system to comment more generally, though I’ve gotten the impression this is pretty widespread.)

In some ways it is more comprehensive than the Oxford Study Bible. It’s joint introduction to the four gospels is more extensive, and it discusses themes in more detail in the introduction to Luke. It discusses critical issues in some detail for the lay reader. It also includes more information on chronology. In general, however, I would make the same comment on the notes that I make on the Oxford Study Bible–they don’t get too much involved in application to the community as such. I personally like it that way. I’ll make my own applications, thank you very much! But for those who are looking for a shorter path to sermon outlines, it will not be as helpful as a couple of others.

Holy Spirit Encounter Bible

You may think this one is out of place in this list, and you’re right. I wanted to include a Bible that displayed the kind of devotional material that none of these other Bibles do. If you lead study groups or teach Sunday School classes, you will likely encounter students who use such Bibles. They are not bad in themselves, but I do believe there is a danger of imbalance in the themes of scripture.

The Holy Spirit Encounter Bible approaches everything with the question of how this relates to the Holy Spirit. If you used this for a single study, looking for the Holy Spirit in scripture, that could be useful. Just avoid using such a Bible as your regular reading Bible.

It should be no surprise that the introduction to Luke in this Bible includes no outline, no discussion of when the book was written, the character of the author, communities to whom it was addressed, or any critical issue. In fact, the introduction is titled “the HOLY SPIRIT in Luke” which follows a pattern used for all the books.

Rather than notes in a variety of categories or reflecting backgrounds, you find in the first few chapters of Luke several “Holy Spirit Encounter Moments,” two “Anointed by the Holy Spirit” inset boxes, one on John the Baptist and one on Elizabeth, and finally a “Holy Spirit Encounters” page that is not even related to the passages in which it is situated, but rather refers one to 1 Corinthians 12.

Now these things are not bad in themselves, but it reflects the directed, devotional approach of the Bible. A study Bible that emphasizes one theme should not be used as a regular study Bible, nor should it be used alone, because it points to the theme chosen by the editorial board, and not to the themes emphasized by the authors of scripture.

(Note that while this sounds a bit hostile, I have actually enjoyed studying a number of things in this particular Bible. I’m cautioning, not warning away.)

New Interpreter’s Study Bible

I purchases this Bible only a couple of months before I received my copy of the NLT study Bible. I was hopeful that it would have some of the theological notes that I’m used to finding in the Interpreter’s Bible or the New Interpreter’s Bible, both of which I value in their own way.

I expected essentially a New Oxford Annotated Bible with a little more theological reflection. I was wrong. This is not like either of the two “Oxford” Bibles I mentioned. It focuses on serious theological reflection. Of course, consider the word “serious” in the context of the space they have available. Nonetheless I think that for the available space, this is the best theologically oriented study Bible I have encountered.

There is much more discussion of themes. Such references are there are to critical issues come in that context, but they are really few and far between. Outlines are more detailed than any of the editions I have discussed previously. There is some material on chronology and on these broader themes in the material in the back, but if you go straight to the book of Luke (or another book), you’ll dive straight into theological themes and some application.

Despite, or more likely because of the reduced emphasis on some of the more traditional critical methodologies, literary issues receive more discussion. If I were trying to prepare a sermon and didn’t have time to dig through mountains of history in order to make up my mind, this would provide me with the shortest path from scripture to major points in my sermon outline, while still being faithful to good scholarship and theological reflection.

It is based on the NRSV, which is not my favorite, but it is not a bad version, especially for those accustomed to the KJV tradition. It is also not designed for the casual student. One should not assume that the vocabulary is light, or the treatment superficial just because it is less technical in the historical and critical sense. It is shifted from critical and historical issues to more serious theology.

NLT Study Bible (Finally!)

I finally arrive at the study Bible that got me started writing this. All in all, the NLT Study Bible is in many ways a pleasant surprise. It’s not another “light” study Bible. It’s not a devotional Bible. Ignore the hype on the cover–it’s not a revolutionary breakthrough. At the same time, it is good.

The layout is better, but note that you will get less information packed onto a page. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible manages to get much more packed into its pages, but it does so at the expense of readability. Nonetheless, for me, the NISB would win.

When I turn to the introduction to Luke, I see a map of the region in which the story takes place, a short bullet point style outline of the book. The introduction is divided up into friendly headings that lets you find what you want quickly, and there is room to add notes in the margin. The contents are a blend of the historical, literary, and theological, along with a bit of devotional here and there.

Rather than having chronology separated in an article in the back (NISB, for example), there is a brief timeline on the right hand side of the page. The theological approach is evangelical, but not extreme. The date cited for Luke’s writing is 65-80 AD (they use AD, not CE). The description of authorship references both written and oral sources, but also eyewitness accounts.

The notes are also a mix of background, theology, and application, and again the layout of the Biblical text, cross-references, and notes is quite user friendly.


Overall, while my personal study habits will not be altered by much, I will find time to consult this Bible, and I also expect to recommend it to quite a number of Bible students who are perhaps beyond the Learning Bible, but don’t really want to get into something like the Oxford Study Bible or the New Interpreter’s Bible. I will also recommend it to evangelicals who might find constant disagreement with their study Bible to be distracting. The NLT study Bible is a good addition to the Bible edition market.

I will continue my discussion of this Bible after I have used it some more in my personal study.

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  1. I’ve been impressed with the NLT-SB. I’d put it on par with the NIV-SB. And the NLT is one of my favorite dynamic translations too.

    And I’ve also been thinking about getting the NISB for a long time. I have a feeling it may be better than the NOAB and HCSB, but then, I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison before so I don’t know. What do you think?

  2. David – yes, I’ve been watching the Behemoth and have added a widget with the last five posts to my right sidebar. I’m playing with my Google reader account right now and so you don’t want to add my favorites to the Behemoth at the moment, you really don’t!

    Kevin – I think the NISB is good, but before recommending it you need to understand where it is positioned. I think the best description I could give is very theological. It’s not that it doesn’t do exegesis, historical data, or critical work. It’s just that all that fades into the background compared to the theological reflection.

    It is also extremely dense. If you compare it side by side to the NLT study Bible, think of all the subtitles being smaller, all the white space being filled with text in what looks like slightly smaller print (though it might just be more densely packed), and longer paragraphs most of the time.

    The NISB is all business from start to finish. I think they wanted to get as much of the New Interpreter’s Bible type of data in there as they could without making it a Behemoth (with apologies to David Ker).

    I like it, but I like information packed tightly into the minimum amount of space. Many don’t. I guess it’s a matter of taste.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Henry. I too am a fan of the Oxford Study Bible (REB) and it’s always interesting to see it considered along with more well-known volumes.

    In addition to the REB text and exegetical focus, I am very appreciative of its minimalistic design aesthetic – it is music to my eyes compared to many of the garish study Bibles on the market today.

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