The Best Study Bible

Posted in Book Reviews on December 5, 2016 - by

Short on time and can't read the whole article? Here are our quick recommendations for the best study Bibles. 

For a great affordable and all-purpose study Bible: HarperCollins Fully Revised and Updated Study Bible.

For academic or serious Biblical study, the best choice is The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha.

If you are looking for a theologically conservative Bible, the best choice is either the the Holman Christian Standard Bible Study Bible (HCSB) or the Zondervan Study Bible (NIV).

Introduction to study Bibles

The Bible is the world's best-selling book, ever. And with 40 million Bibles sold last year, the Bible market is actually doing better than ever. Not surprisingly, this means there are hundreds of translations and versions in over 500 different languages.

Study Bibles are among the many different available versions of the Bible. These books are designed for individuals who wish to become true students of the Bible. They provide scholarly information that is designed to help the reader cultivate a stronger grasp and understanding of the original texts, context, and meaning.

The very first study Bible was called the Geneva Bible, written in 1560 a.d., and contained hundreds of scriptural cross references and summaries. The early 1970's introduced a new era of study Bibles. Using the RSV translation, the Harper Study Bible in 1971 was the first Bible to contain a wealth of additional information from a respected conservative Christian scholar, Harold Lindsell.

Seven years later, the Ryrie Study Bible was published. It contained the same features (introductions, references, and notes), but this time from the most well known dispensationalist biblical scholar of the twentieth century, Charles C. Ryrie.

Our recommendations for buying a study Bible

There are different motivations and reasons for buying a study Bible. Additionally, some of us are not willing to compromise on translation. Therefore, there is no one perfect study edition. So, we have broken our recommendations into a few sub-categories to help readers find the best version for them!

The all-around best version

#1 Best Study BibleThere are a number of reasons why we picked the HarperCollins Fully Revised and Updated Sudy Bible as the best study Bible. First, this edition is affordable. Secondly, it uses the New Revised Standard Edition, which is the best translation for biblical interpretation and study. (For more info on translation versions, keep reading this article.) This book is a more manageable size than the Oxford Bible that we also recommend.

What does this edition contain? You will find an updated and brand new concordance which indexes common biblical terms. This edition contains more introductory articles than the first edition, but is lacking compared to the most in-depth study Bibles available. This is the trade off for a more manageable hand-sized Bible. If you own the first edition, you will notice this version has slightly smaller font and narrower margins. We did not have any issues reading this edition, the print is darker than the first edition.

If you want an affordable, all-in-one, Bible + complete study Bible, this is the one for you.

Price check the HarperCollins Fully Revised and Updated Sudy Bible on Amazon.

The best academic study bible

Without a doubt, for serious academic study, university study, biblical criticism, and individuals wanting the most information packed study Bible available, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha is the undisputed choice. The 1st edition was published in 1962 and the most recent 4th edition was published in 2010.

This book is commonly abbreviated as the "NOAB," and if you have done any serious biblical research you have likely stumbled upon the NOAB reference before. The NOAB was compiled by Michael Coogan who is a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Harvard Divinity School. But the Bible has many additional contributors. Some other contributors include Terence E. Fretheim (who contributed heavily to the book of Numbers), Julia M. O'Brien (who annotated many of the briefer prophets), and Neil Elliott's (who's commentary sets the book of Romans within its true 'empire' context).

This is the most used study Bible in mainline seminaries. Do not let this scare you away. Just because this Bible is a favorite in prestigious seminaries does not mean the Bible itself is 'overly academic.' It simply includes more articles, resources, and information than almost any other study Bible. Information that is not useful to you can simply be passed over.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible

No other study Bible will provide better exposition on cultural and historical settings.

For Bible geeks who owned the previous version, the most updated edition (4th) is slightly smaller. The font can be small, especially in the introductory articles when compared to the 3rd edition. It seems that the publisher wanted this edition to be physically smaller and the only way to achieve this was to reduce the font size. Some positive improvements over the 3rd edition include updates to the concordance and index. The essay sections have been expanded. Our favorite improvement is that the brand new maps are now in color!

We do not have the Kindle version and cannot comment on the quality.

Price check the NOAB on Amazon.

Theologically conservative study Bibles

The NRSV translations used in the HarperCollins edition and the NOAB use gender neutral language. While they do not have specific theological goals, they are not considered theologically conservative editions. If you are a Christian who wants a theologically conservative study Bible, the previous two recommendations will not be satisfactory choices.

Instead, we will make these two recommendations:

Holman Christian Standard Bible Study Bible

This is one of the best selling study Bibles in the past few years. Any study Bible worth its weight has multiple contributors, and one can better understand a translation's / commentary's theological mission or angle by researching the contributors backgrounds. The vast majority of the contributors to Holman’s graduated (or taught at) from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This Bible is very transparent about its purpose - the introduction states that this Bible wants to maintain a conservative, Southern Baptist understanding of Scripture. The contributors self-proclaim the Bible to be "orthodox" as well as very easy to read.

One common concern with modern interpretations of the Bible are the choices in diction -- many newer versions change certain words. The Holman's study Bible keeps words like “justification” and “sanctification.” This copy also rejects the gender-neutral language of many modern translations.

Zondervan Study Bible

NIV ZondervanOur second choice is the NIV, Zondervan Study Bible. This text is appealing to the same audience the Holman's targets -- those who want "easy to read" and traditional text. The biggest difference between the two is that the Zondervan Study Bible uses the New International Version (NIV), while the Holman Study Bible (as the name would suggest) uses the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

The best NIV study Bible

We think the Zondervan Study Bible is the best study Bible for NIV fans. What we appreciated the most about this book was its focus on continuity and narrative theology. The Zondervan helps readers appreciate the entirety of the Bible as an ongoing narrative. In contrast, other study Bibles may leave readers viewing each book as its own separate entity.

Price check the Zondervan Study Bible on Amazon.

The best study Bible for casual reading

Are you simply looking for a slim Bible that provides helpful insights and book introductions along the way? If so, the most important consideration will be your preference in version.

  • NIV - If you love the NIV, the Zondervan Study Bible was specifically designed for easy readability.
  • NRSVFor this translation we would still pick our earlier recommendation, the HarperCollins Updated Sudy Bible, as the best edition for casual reading.
  • NKJVWe really like the Apply the Word Study Bible for NKJV. Its focus on responding to the message within the text makes it the perfect choice for a casual reader wishing to implement the Word of God into his or her life.

The best study Bibles for kids

Are children to young to read the Bible themselves? No! - the Bible was written in plain language for all of the people, not just the intellectuals. In fact, the languages the Bible was written in were not the languages of the scholars, but the common people. Therefore, many children can read and comprehend many parts of the Bible at a very early age. A study Bible can help them better understand what they are reading. Although children can read the Bible, children should be given different Bibles based on their ages.

Our favorite study Bible for ages 8 and under is, A Child's First Bible. This Bible has 125 of the most familiar Bible stories plus it is beautifully illustrated.

For ages 8 to 12, we recommend the New Explorer's Study Bible (NLT), and the Adventure Bible. Although the NLT is not a good translation for adult level Biblical studies, it is a great way for young children to enjoy reading the Bible. The Adventure Bible comes in two different translations, the NIV Edition and the NKJV Edition.

After the age of 12, most teenagers are deemed old enough to read an 'adult' Bible. However, we do not recommend The New Oxford Annotated Bible until around high school age. We recommend the highly praised and international best seller, ESV Study Bible. There are 20,000 study notes, 240 full-color maps and illustrations, charts, timelines, and introductions.

Additionally, the Life Application Study Bible is a good choice for all ages and is today's #1-selling study study Bible.

For more information on children's Bibles see the best Bibles for kids.

Differences between a study Bible and a 'regular' Bible

The difference between a study Bible and a 'regular' Bible is additional information / visual aids included alongside Scripture. To start with, every Bible and study Bible must use some translation. This means that there will be NKJV Bibles and NKJV study Bibles, NRSV Bibles and NRSV study Bibles, and so on. The translation of the NRSV Bible will always be the same as the NRSV study Bible. The Scriptural text itself is always the same across identical translations.

The study Bible will contains structural differences. They will be longer because there will be more notes, references, and pictures. There will also be some structural differences, including single column vs double column text, length of book introductions, and longer study notes.

Common features of study Bibles

These are some of the features you should expect a thorough study Bible to include. Bibles will often include some of these features, but never as many or as in-depth as a good study Bible.

  • Annotations explaining misleading, complex, and difficult passages, doctrine, and theology.
  • Images of relevant historical ruins and artifacts of the time.
  • Additional context on the passage's setting and author's motivation and background.
  • Detailed introductions to each book of the Bible.
  • Short biographies of main characters that were not introduced.
  • Different possible interpretations or meanings.
  • Definitions of words and a concordance.
  • Historical maps.
  • Timelines.
  • Suggested reading plans
  • Real life application of passages.
  • References and parallels to other scriptural sources, often connections between the New Testament and the Old Testament.
  • Cross references that suggest connections between sources, motivations, and references.

It is also quite common for modern study Bibles to be shaped around a specific angle or theme. For instance, a study Bible might emphasize bringing out God's grace from the entirety of the Bible. Another example is The Green Bible that draws out environmental issues from scripture.

How to pick a Bible translation

There are many different translations of the Bible, each with different objectives, varying reference to sources, and approaches to translation.

What is your favorite translation? Tell us with a comment on Facebook!

Do you want a study Bible because you are engaging in Biblical criticism and interpretation? If you are reading the Bible in English and you do not know the biblical languages, it is crucial to have a reference on textual and translation issues. It is very helpful to compare different translations, use a study Bible, and a good commentary.

No matter what translation you pick, it is important to understand the translation's goals/principles.

Key differences among translations

When comparing the differences between translations, there are three main points of variance. The first is the source used for translation, the second is the the theory of translation, and the last main point is a more modern concern -- the translator's decision of whether or not to use gender inclusive language.

Original language & source

The first major difference among translations is the original language text that is used for translation. There are two options:

  • The Textus Receptus (New Testament) and the Masoretic text (Old Testament)
    • This is used by the King James Version.
  • The Modern critical editions
    • This is what most modern Bibles use, and undoubtedly should use.

Theory of translation

There are three theories of translation that are used.

  • Formal equivalence - (also known as a literal translation)
    • Formal equivalence is the best translation to use for a study Bible because it seeks to translate Scripture word for word. These translations will be the most detailed and in-depth versions available. Popular examples of formal equivalence are: King James Version, Revised Standard Version, and English Standard Version.
  • Dynamic equivalence - (also known as functional)
    • The purpose of this translation is to come as close as possible to representing the thought expressed in the translation. This style attempts to substitute equivalent present day English expressions in for more archaic ones. The goal is to convey the overall meaning of a passage. Examples of a Bibles that use dynamic equivalence are the Good News Bible, New Living Translation, New Century Version, and the Common English Bible.
  • Paraphrase - (a version of Scripture, no necessarily a translation)
    • A translation that uses a paraphrase is the worst type of translation for a study Bible. The most popular two examples of paraphrased translations are The Living Bible and The Message. From a biblical scholar's point of view, this is not a translation of the Bible, it is a version of Scripture.

Gender-inclusive language

The translators of every edition will have an opinion about gender-inclusive language. The translators will either think that it is acceptable to use masculine language to refer to a group of multiple-gender people, or that it is not. Some popular translations that use gender-inclusive language are: New Revised Standard Version, New Living Translation, New Century Version, Contemporary English Version, New International Version, and The Message.

If you want to know what type of translation your Bible uses, here are the most popular versions of the Bible categorized by their style of translation.

Popular Formal Equivalence Versions

  • King James Version
  • New King James Version
  • Revised Standard Version
  • New Revised Standard Version
  • English Standard Version
  • New American Standard Bible

Popular Dynamic Equivalence Versions

  • New Living Translation
  • New Century Version
  • Contemporary English Version
  • Good news Bible
  • New English Translation
  • New International Reader's Version
  • Common English Bible

Popular Hybrid Versions

  • New International Version
  • Today's New International Version
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible
  • New Jerusalem Bible
  • New American Bible

Popular Paraphrases

  • The Message
  • The Living Bible

The best translation of the Bible

Without a doubt, if given the choice, every Christian would want to have the 'best' translation of the Bible. Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus among Christians. Biblical scholars do generally agree that the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the most well rounded translation. The NRSV is a "literal" translation, which means it sticks to the original meaning 'word for word' without contemporizing the message. Nevertheless, it is not unnatural to read like many of the literal translations. (As you recognize now, this is an example of formal equivalency.)

The best Bible translation for study

For serious Biblical interpretation, criticism, and study we recommend a study Bible that uses the New Revised Standard Version. This version is a word for word translation and uses the earliest manuscripts. The most in-depth and comprehensive study Bible is The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Another excellent choice is The HarperCollins Study Bible.

The next best translations would be The Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New English Translation (NET). The RSV is characterized by its literal translation and its tendency to maintain some of the King James Version language and inaccuracies. The NET is sometimes criticized for reflecting too much conservative bias.

The worst Bible translation for study

Although they use the proper style of translation, both the King James Version and the New King James Version of the Bible are academically unacceptable translations to use for Biblical study. Don't just take our word for it, most universities, theologians, and seminaries agree (for example, see Christian Theological Seminary,Theology.eduUniversity of WyomingCedarville.edu,

When the KJV was first published, it was the most up-to-date, innovative, and revolutionary translation of its day and age.

However, since the 17th century (when it was first published) many more accurate biblical manuscripts have been found. These more accurate biblical manuscripts are used in translations like the NRSV, but they have not been implemented into the KJV.

This does not mean the KJV is not a useful translation, and it does not mean the KJV does not have a lot to offer us. The KJV's wording and language is often one of the best translations for younger students. The rhythm and poetic nature cause it to be used by millions. We highly recommend reading multiple translations of the Bible when doing biblical studies. Many serious biblical studies will use the KJV as a supplemental reference. For more information, see this article on Bible.com.

The top 10 selling Bible versions in the U.S.

We always find it interesting to note which translations of the Bible are currently the most popular in the United States. The list fluctuates each year, but this is the order of top selling Bibles for the past few years.

  1. New International Version (NIV)
  2. King James Version (KJV)
  3. New King James Version (NKJV)
  4. New Living Translation (NLT)
  5. English Standard Version (ESV)
  6. Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
  7. Common English Bible (CEB)
  8. Reina Valera 1960
  9. New American Standard (NAS)
  10. New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

Understanding the "symbolic and prophecy language" of the Bible

Recently we had a reader request that we updated this guide to add the best study Bible for understanding "symbolic and prophecy language." This is a specific request and we recommend using a digital companion. Check out e-Sword (which is free) or Logos Bible software.

If you catch any errors, or think that we should update some aspect of the article, let us know! Any questions can be left in the comments and we'll get back to you! Share the love and Pin this on Pinterest or comment on Facebook.
This page was last updated on 1/12/2018 and first published on 12/5/2016. Please us the contact form before republishing this page. The product links in this article lead to Amazon.

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6 Responses to “The Best Study Bible”

  1. Seth Bos says:

    Which Bible is best for students entering into college?

  2. Mike M. says:

    Worth noting for individuals considering dynamic equivalency bibles -- this style is bent depicting our savior Jesus as "just a man." Avoid!

  3. Ross says:

    No ESV Study Bible by Crossway on this list? Why? It's clearly the best.

  4. ELIZABETH DANIEL says:

    Ryrie study bible niv

  5. Brett Stephen says:

    Finally!!! I've been searching all over for a study bible review that included an adequate discussion on Bible translation. This is the first website that has explained formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and paraphrase as they relate to a study Bible. Whatever staff author wrote this clearly has some type of formal education/training in theology.

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