On my desk at home I have the following study Bibles, in no particular order: the NLT Study Bible, the NKJV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition), the CEB Study Bible, and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. In my office at school I have at least the following (there may be more, but since I’m not there right now, I’ll probably miss some): the 1599 Geneva Bible, the Harper-Collins Study Bible (1st and 2nd editions), and the Apologetics Study Bible. In the past I have also owned the NIV Study Bible, the Open Bible, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, and no doubt others. In addition, there are dozens more study Bibles on the market, some for general use, and many intended for niche markets.
There are two strengths to study Bibles.
First, they all include helps to understanding the message of the Bible. These usually include introductions to the books of the Bible, a concordance, maps, timelines, additional theological notes, and brief running comments on the biblical text. In that sense, they are a mini-library for biblical study. For ordinary Christian folks, who have neither the time, the training, nor the patience to labor through larger commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, and other reference works, these Bibles can be an immense help for working through what is often a puzzling book.
Second, because of the helps the reader can often be directed away from dangerous misunderstandings of the Bible that are promulgated by various cults. Or the reader may misread something, due to a failure to understand the language. Study Bibles can generally help the reader avoid these kinds of mistakes.
But study Bibles also have shortcomings.
In order to keep the size of the Bible within a reasonable scope (the ESV Study Bible really pushes the envelope here, at almost 2,800 pages) something has to give. Generally what is lost is commentary on the text itself. Comments on difficult passages are often the first to suffer in this regard. Comments can be terse to the point of being incomprehensible. The comments are usually written by specialists on the various books of the Bible, who sometimes do not have a good sense of what the ordinary reader needs. In that sense, it can be like the old computer “help” manuals. They were written by the people who wrote the programs, so they did not understand the needs of the computer-illiterate user.
Second, study Bibles can interfere with actually reading the Bible. Having the text of the Bible surrounded with cross-references, commentary, devotional paragraphs, and theological notes easily distracts the reader from actual reading. They are Bibles, as the name says, for study, not for reading.
Do I recommend study Bibles? Yes, for study. My current preferences are for the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. The former is a significant improvement over its previous edition, with better and clearer commentary, as well as improved additional materials. The latter, while being somewhat hobbled by the KJV, is a very fine resource for family worship.
However, in addition to a study Bible, I also recommend a reading Bible. My preference here is for the ESV Reader’s Bible. Until you begin to read a Bible such as this one, you will not realize how distracting verse numbers, chapter divisions, and textual notes can be to the progress of your reading. It is much easier to read continuously without those distractions, and that continuous reading helps the reader to get a good grasp of the big picture of the Bible.
Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article is taken from his blog