The best study Bible contains a balance of both. You
want a careful, accurate translation, but one that reads
easily and clearly for family devotions or public
Another issue is the underlying Greek and Hebrew text.
The KJV translators worked with the best texts available to
them in 1611, but in the last 150 years we have gained a
much more accurate understanding of what the original text
must have been. Nearly all modern translations are enriched
by the translators working from the most accurate Greek and
Hebrew texts possible.
Here are some of the most popular English translations.
Your church or tradition may have a particular preference,
but any one of these might be a good choice for you:
- The King James Version (KJV, 1611) is, of course,
the granddaddy of our English Bibles. For its day it
was a very accurate translation and is still used in
many congregations today. In 1984, the New King James
Version (NKJV) was published as a whole Bible by Thomas
Nelson. Translators modernized the language of archaic
words substantially and removed most of the “thee’s and
thou’s,” through the original language basis remained
the same as the KJV of 1611. For churches with a strong
King James tradition, the NKJV is a popular
- The New International Version (NIV) was first
translated as a whole Bible by evangelical scholars in
1973, with revisions in 1983 and 1988. It is an
excellent balance between readability and accuracy of
translation. For years it has been the most popular
newer translation in the United States, especially
among evangelical churches.
- New American Standard Bible (NASB or NASV),
translated by the Lockman Foundation, was published in
the whole Bible in 1971 and revised in 1977. Its big
strength is its consistency in literally translating
words and tenses. It is known as a very accurate
translation, though perhaps not as easy to read aloud
as some others.
- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) and its
predecessor the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952)
are careful translations in the King James tradition.
Several Protestant denominations prefer the NRSV. It is
both accurate and readable.
Of course there are many other modern translations, many
of them good for serious Bible study, too numerous to list
here. The original Living Bible and The
Message are not translations, but paraphrases. They
can be refreshing to read but aren’t good Bibles for
Learning to Use a Study Bible
After you’ve decided what translation to use, I
encourage you to purchase a study Bible, since it will
contain a number of tools in one volume that can help you
dig deeper. Nearly every Bible publisher offers a study
Bible. Your local Christian bookstore can help you figure
out which one is right for you. Here are some of the
features that you’ll come to appreciate:
- Cross References. In a column next to the text, a
study Bible lists several other verses with a similar
idea or theme. For example, for “Nicodemus” in John
3:1, my Bible refers me to John 7:50 and 19:39 where he
appears again. For “Rabbi” in verse 2, the cross
references send me to Matthew 23:7 which has nine more
references on this topic that I can explore. These
cross references won’t be comprehensive, but will point
out the main passages that discuss this idea.
- Bible Book Introductions. It’s important to know
something about the author, date, themes,
circumstances, and intended audience of the Bible book
or letter you’re studying. In most study Bibles you’ll
find one to three pages of introductory comments for
each book with a brief outline.
- Study Notes or Annotations. Study Bibles have
footnotes at the bottom of the page to help explain
some of the more obscure ideas you’ll run across — a
kind of mini-commentary. Remember, these aren’t part of
the Bible itself, but can often point you in the right
direction in your study. These notes are usually
indexed for easy reference.
- Concordance. You’ve had a verse on the tip of your
tongue, but don’t know exactly where it is. A
concordance helps you find a Bible passage if you can
think of a key word or two that the verse contains. A
concordance can also help you find other verses that
teach a concept or use a word found in the passage
- Topical Index. In addition to a concordance, some
study Bibles have a separate topical index that helps
you find scripture references on a particular
- Maps. Part of understanding what’s happening in
narrative passages of Scripture is learning the
geography, the location of cities, battles, mountains,
valleys, enemies, etc.
Other features you may find include articles on various
topics, a brief Bible dictionary, outlines of topics and
Bible books, index of place names, time lines, and so
Specialized Tools for the Next Step
Obtaining a study Bible is the place to begin. But as
your Bible studies increase, you may want to invest in some
more specialized books. Some to explore:
- Bible Handbook. Provides a great deal of
information about each book of the Bible, life in Bible
times, history of the English Bible, etc.
- Bible Dictionary. Brief articles on each
significant subject, word, and person in the Old and
New Testaments. You’ll often find helpful summaries of
- Bible Concordance. While study Bibles provide an
abridged concordance, you can find an unabridged
concordance that helps you find every occurrence of a
particular word in the Bible. The best-known of these
is Strong’s Concordance (based on the KJV)
which identifies each Greek and Hebrew word, and gives
it a brief definition and a number. Now concordances
are available for the NIV and NASB containing Strong’s
- Bible Commentary. Bible commentaries provide an
overview and running explanation of each book of the
Bible. A good place to start might be with a fairly
recent one-volume commentary on the whole Bible. There
are also a number of inexpensive commentary series
available that cover each book in the Bible, if you
want to study a particular book in greater depth.
- Word Study tools include an interlinear New
Testament that shows the Greek text on one line and a
literal English translation below it. A Greek-English
Lexicon provides clear, precise definitions for each
Greek word in the New Testament. Some of these are
keyed to Strong’s numbers so they can be used by
students who haven’t learned to read Greek letters.
Similar resources are available for Hebrew as
- Topical Bible. A topical Bible will give a great
many scripture references listed by topic. Great if
you’re doing a topical or thematic Bible study.
- Bible Atlas. An atlas contains more than detailed
maps. It also describes the geography and places of the
Bible, usually with fascinating illustrations and
If you need advice on Bible study books, ask your pastor
or the manager of a Christian bookstore.
These days many Bible study resources are available
online at no cost, such as Crosswalk Bible Study Tools
(bible.crosswalk.com). You can also purchase excellent
Bible study software for your computer.
Don’t Forget the Most Important Step
It’s possible to be so engrossed in Bible study that you
forget the most important purpose of Bible study. It’s not
Bible knowledge for its own sake nor being able to quote
verses and recite orthodox doctrine. Ultimately, the
purpose of Bible study is to learn exactly what the Bible
teaches so that you can apply its teachings to your
Perhaps the simplest approach to Bible study is to use
the three basic inductive Bible study questions to ask of a
- What does it say?
- What did it mean to those reading it in Bible
- What does it mean to me as I seek to apply it to my
My prayer is that your Bible study results in a heart
that is tender to listen to what the Spirit is saying to
you through Scripture and a will that is determined to live
out in your everyday life what you’re learning.
Dr. Ralph Wilson is a California pastor, director of Joyful
Heart Renewal Ministries, and author of more than a dozen
free online Bible studies from the Old
and New Testaments. Each Bible study is
also available in e-book and printed format
(www.jesuswalk.com/ebooks). Copyright © 2006, Ralph F.
Wilson . All rights reserved.