Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bible Study Tools

Deuteronomy 11:18-21 (NIV)

"Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth."


Today we're going to talk about Bible Study Tools. Five years ago I started working for an industrial construction company doing purchasing and Human Resources work. When I first got there no one knew my background and that I didn't know a screwdriver from a hammer. I'm sure the guys got totally frustrated with me when they would ask me to purchase an air tugger, or a cathead wrench, or a darby float or an arc gouger and I would give them a blank stare. I can't tell you how many times they've said, "Okay, come with me to the back and I'll show you one, then you can order it." My point is, industrial construction work requires some pretty specific and sometimes unique tools. And as we all know, doing any job well, involves having the right tools. Well, the same thing applies to Bible study. There is a set of pretty specific and unique tools available for in-depth Bible Study. Now please hear me plainly on this, I'm not suggesting you need to go out and break the bank buying all the stuff I'm going to talk about today. I just want you to know it is available. What's more, there is no need to buy them because most of them are available at the library. Also, as we'll discuss in a moment, most of what you'll need is available online. That said, let's take a look at what you might want to consider for your Bible Study toolbox, starting with the most essential one of all, a Bible.

Bible Study Tools

1. Bible
Getting the right Bible for you personally is, in my opinion, the single most important consideration of all when it comes to reading and studying the Bible. We are fortunate today to have more Bibles to choose from than ever. There are dozens of translations and there are a zillion specialty Bibles in those translations such as Bibles for men, Bibles for women, Bibles for children and teens, Bibles for people in recovery, Bibles for teachers, Bibles for businessmen, and so on. Today it seems like there's a Bible for just about any life situation you can think of, but the fact that there is can be overwhelming. Which Bible is the right one for you? Here are a few things I would consider:

Readability - make sure you can easily read and understand the Bible you choose. This is why the KJV is not usually the best choice anymore. Most of us don't speak with thees and thous and the nature of this translation, done in 1611 makes it almost as inaccessible as the original language for many of us today.

How Will You Use Your Bible  - ask yourself how you will be using the Bible. If you get a $100 leather bound, gold inscripted study Bible are you really going to take it to church with you where it may get damaged? Do you want a Bible made with that thin parchment/onion skin paper if you choose to write in your Bible? What I'm saying is - if you plan to really use your Bible and take it places, keep that in mind when buying one. Of course you could be a Bible connoisseur like me and have a Bible for every occasion - a camping Bible, a church Bible, a Bible for my quiet time, a Bible on my nightstand, etc. But something is lost when you do that because you have notes all over the place and you never have the notes you need, when you need them.

Where you Are in Your Walk - still another consideration I'd like to mention concerns where you are in your walk. One of the good things about there being so many different types of Bible is that there are versions just for beginning Christians and others for more advanced believers. A related point to this concerns your own personal reading level. Believe it or not, the various translations of the Bible have different reading levels. If you're not a great reader you may want to get one of the versions that are more suited to your reading level.

Chart: Translations by Reading Level


Today there are dozens of translations out there. I remember when I was a kid you had basically two translations, the KJV or the RSV. That was it. Obviously not all translations are the same however. There are basically two types of translation: word for word, or thought for thought. A word for word translation is one that takes the best translation of the Greek words (in the NT) and writes them out, then knits them together using English. A thought for thought translation, sometimes called a paraphrase, takes a Greek sentence then reframes it the best they can in English. Obviously if you are doing in-depth Bible study you're going to want a word for word translation - you may even want to look up a Greek word or two. If you're just reading the Bible for devotional purposes or pleasure, you may want a thought for thought translation. I typically find it helpful to use multiple versions. 

Sometimes, the way a verse is translated in another version can help you figure out the meaning. On the class blog I've put a brief history of Bible translations and a description of many of the more well-known versions (at the end of this lesson).

Here are my favorites:

NIV (New International Version): for all around general purposes I read the NIV.

NRSV (New Revised Standard Version): This is the most ecumenical translation (Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists and others helped translate it).

ESV (English Standard Version): more "word for word" than the NIV, reads well.

KJV (King James Version): archaic, but the Psalms and a few of my life's verses don't sound as well in any other version.

Living Bible or The Message: These versions are highly readable and can shed a different light on the Bible, but definitely paraphrases and often include bias.

Study Bibles
For many folks the best option for their "go to" Bible might be a study Bible. The best-selling Bibles on the market today are all study Bibles which are typically available in multiple translations. For instance you might find the Life Application Study Bible in the NIV, NRSV, KJV, etc. Other study Bibles are available in one version only, such as the NIV Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible. Study Bibles are popular because they include helpful extras in addition to the text that can be a great advantage in your study. These extras include:

Introductory notes and outlines: When studying a particular book of the Bible it is helpful to know such things as who wrote it, when, and what the purpose of the book was.

Cross references: Many times, especially in our study of the NT, a writer will quote a verse from the OT. Having a cross-reference lets you know whether Paul is quoting Isaiah, or Genesis.

Verse notes: These are brief comments, interpretations or background information for a particular verse or set of verses. These can be helpful, but use your own interpretive skills too!

Maps and charts: Study Bibles typically contain reference sections such as maps, tables of weights and measure, and various indexes. These can tell you things like how far people traveled, or how expensive something was, or how small or large an item was.

Recommended Study Bibles
As far as which Study Bibles I like best, I would have to recommend the following as my favorites. They are written with notes that are not overwhelming or too deep for the casual reader, but deep enough to increase your understanding of the text.

New International Version Study Bible. International Bible Society. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985. (preface)

Life Application Study Bible. World Bible Publishers. Iowa Falls: Tyndale House, 1988. (preface)

ESV Study Bible. Crossway Bibles. Wheaton, IL, 2001. (preface)
Interlinear Bibles and Parallel Bibles
There are two other types of Bibles I want to briefly mention. The first is what is called an Interlinear Bible. Interlinear Bibles have the original text of the Scripture (Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT) along with an English translation and typically a numbering system called Strong's with which you can look up the various translations of the Greek word. I have a slide of this for you to look at, and I brought an Interlinear Bible I use at home. These can be very helpful for those of us who want to do a little Greek research but don't want to have to learn the whole language in order to study the Bible.

The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament Tyndall House. Wheaton, 1990

The final type Bible I want to mention is called a Parallel Bible. Parallel Bibles have the text of the Scripture written out side-by-side with two or more translations so you can read them at the same time and compare them. This can be very interesting reading and it really gives you a good feel for the differences in translations. They can also be pretty bulky though in that they are at least two Bibles in one.

The New Layman's Parallel Bible Zondervan Publishing. Grand Rapids, 1981

2. Concordances
Now that we've looked at Bibles, let's look at a few more tools for our tool box. The first I want to mention is called a concordance. A concordance contains list of words followed by all the verses in the Bible that contain those words. For instance, you might look up the word "fire" and you'd get a list that looks something like this (show slide). This can be very helpful for doing a study on a particular topic or in finding a verse that you don't have the reference for. 

Concordances vary in how many verses they will list. The ones in the backs of Bibles are generally short and just contain the main words and verses that contain that word. Exhaustive Concordances, on the other extreme, list more words and also list all the verses that contain those words. They are also called exhaustive because they weigh a ton! :)

People don't use concordances as much as they used to mainly because of the ease of using online concordances. When I was in seminary back in the dark ages we had to use actual concordance books like the one I brought to class today.

NRSV Exhaustive Concordance, Bruce M. Metzer Nelson Publishing, 1991

3. Commentaries
A commentary is exactly what it sounds like, it contains someone's or some group's comments on the biblical text. It typically contains the comments of a particular Christian leader, or scholar or group of scholars on the meaning and application of all or a part of the Bible. I brought two today as examples, one is a commentary on the Book of Acts, the other is a Commentary on the entire Bible. Obviously the more you drill down from the entire Bible to a particular book the more in-depth coverage you get.

There are both pluses and minuses to using commentaries. The negative is you need to always be aware whose comments you are reading - is the scholar Roman Catholic? Charismatic? Baptist? The second is sometimes folks tend to rely on the thoughts of the commentator rather than engaging the text themselves. It's fine to use commentaries, but don't let a commentary do the thinking for you. It's better to wrestle with a passage yourself for a while and then consult a commentary if you get stuck or if you want to compare your thoughts with someone else. The positive contribution of a commentary is that sometimes it can help you catch things that you missed or give you background information or language clues that you would never discover on your own.

Harper’s Bible Commentary (1 volume), Harper & Row.

4. Bible Dictionaries
A Bible Dictionary is another tool you might want to consider. Bible Dictionaries are just like English dictionaries, but they focus on biblical words. They often include details like the meanings of biblical names and places, maps, photos and more. Some of the more technical Bible dictionaries come in four or five volumes and include references to Greek and Hebrew words while others are smaller, one-volume dictionaries. The page from the Bible Dictionary I have on the slide here gives the definition of Palestine, which you might find in any dictionary, but the definition here includes biblical and theological details along with the geographical information.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Harper & Row.

5. Bible Atlases
Bible atlases are books of maps that show the world of the Bible as it was in times past.  They are very helpful for seeing how different biblical locations fit together. Many Bible atlases show the paths followed by biblical characters during their travels such as the movements of Jesus, or the journeys of Paul. For instance, we all know where the Egyptians came from, but do you know where the Hittites were, or the Assyrians or the Babylonians? The slide here from a Bible Atlas shows the ancient world at the time of the patriarchs. Or when the NT says Jesus left Jerusalem and went to visit Lazarus at Bethany, where did he really go, map-wise? A good Bible Atlas will show you.

Oxford Bible Atlas, Oxford University Press, New York.

6. Online resources:
The final Bible Study Tool I want to mention are all the online resources available today. Having these resources out there on the Internet now, in my mind, is something that rivals the invention of the printing press in terms of making the Bible and all the great study tools available to more and more people.

Of course, there is so MUCH content on-line now it has become overwhelming. On top of that, the ability of every Tom, Dick and Harry to self-publish on the Internet means you have to be very, very careful what you read online and it is of utmost importance to keep who is writing what you are reading in mind as you read it.

That said, what are some of the more valuable resources on the Internet? Well, it depends on what you are looking for, whether it is the text in a particular translation, or to use the Internet for commentaries, or as a concordance, Bible dictionary, or as a  Bible Atlas. But whatever you want, you'll find plenty of it on-line.

What you will find below are twenty of the most popular Bible websites with a very brief description of each. I use most of these on a fairly regular basis when I'm doing my preparation and study.

In all honesty, I think you'll find whatever you are looking for on one of these websites, many of which have a smart-phone app so you can take your Bible study resources with you.

The main weakness I see on what is offered online are quality commentaries by reputable scholars. If you want to get a really good commentary by a fairly contemporary scholar, you may have to purchase the book. Other than that - you should find everything you need at one of these websites.

1. - providing the Bible online for over 20 years, currently with over 70 languages and 180 versions (a division of The Zondervan Corporation)

2. - provides quick access to many Bible versions and multiple languages, topical studies, interlinears, sermons, commentaries (a production of the Online Parallel Bible Project)

3. - with multiple Bible versions in English and a large resource library for in-depth Bible study (Salem Web Network)

4. - the King James version of the Bible; the most popular website for the most popular version

5. - home for YouVersion and the Bible app (

6. - home of the NET Bible (New English Translation), “where the world comes to study the Bible”

7. - with multiple versions of the Bible, linked with Bible-centered study aids and courses (a ministry of Sowing Circle)

8. - “Bible Study Online” (a service of Faithlife / Logos Bible Software)

9. - “a simple, ad-free Bible that brings God’s Word into your daily life,” links to

10. - English Standard Version of the Bible by Crossway—an “essentially literal” translation of the Bible in contemporary English

11. - the Bible and prayer resources used in the Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion and elsewhere

12. - EasyEnglish is clear and simple English (vocabulary with a smaller word count), developed by MissionAssist

13. - “eBible aims to capture all the answers, to all the questions, about all the verses in the Bible.”

14. - “Bringing the Bible to everyone in the world in their heart language, in text and audio, free of charge”, a ministry of Faith Comes By Hearing

15. - Bible website with “Zip Search With AutoComplete,” part of the suite

16. - nice visually-designed online Bible and Bible verses with Facebook covers and images for social sharing

17. - links to an online study Bible by Digital Bible Society with robust UX and other Bible resources

18. - provides the King James Bible in HTML, viewable and downloadable, by

19. - many Bible versions and languages, with desktop and mobile websites, provided by American Bible Society, and free Bible tools (widget, highlighter, API) to bring the Bible to your audiences

20. NRSV online - online version of the New Revised Standard Version by book and chapter

Talk About It - Discussion Questions

1. How many Bibles do you own? Which is your favorite?

2. What is your favorite translation of the Bible? Has that changed over the years?

3. Do you see the purpose of Bible concordances, commentaries, dictionaries and atlases?

4. Have you ever use online resources for your Bible reading and study?

5. If so, what is your favorite site or smart phone app?

For Next Week - we will look at some  Principles of Biblical Interpretation

Excurses on Bible Translations

For those of you interested, below I have included more information about many of the Bible translations available today. As mentioned in our lesson there are more good translations of the Bible available in English than ever before in any language. There are also a few bad ones.  Translation is difficult and complicated and almost always less than perfect.  What follows is a brief history of the translation of the Bible into the vernacular.

The Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language with a few sections written in the Aramaic language. The OT contains the sacred writings of the Jewish people and contains the Books of the Law, The Books of History, The books of Poetry/Wisdom, and the Books of Prophecy (Major and Minor Prophets). The Jews themselves divide the OT collection of books into only three divisions: The Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The Septuagint is a Greek version of the OT which was translated into Greek around 250-150 BC. Approximately 70 different scholars did this work, hence the name and the designation LXX. The Septuagint was, in fact, the OT of the early church. It was used by the apostles and their converts and is freely quoted in the NT.

The New Testament emerged in the late second century, AD The early church leaders included books they believed were written by eyewitnesses to the events narrated, while rejecting many other early Christian writings. Eventually the 27 books that form the present New Testament, along with the OT books became the Christian Bible, as we know it today.   The New Testament contains the four gospels, or "good news," of Jesus Christ, some history of the early Christian church, and a number of letters written by the Apostle Paul and other Christian leaders. All the NT books were written in Greek over the period of about 50 to 120 AD The earliest works in the NT are the letters of Paul to the early Christian communities. The first of the Gospels was probably Mark, written around 70 AD, about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Matthew, Luke and Acts were written between 80 and 90 AD Finally, The Gospel of John appeared in its final form around 95 AD

The Apocrypha, a group of 15 late OT books, was written during the period 170 BC to 70 AD. These Jewish books were included in many versions of the Septuagint in circulation as the New Testament was being formed, but were excluded from the official canon of Judaism, established about 100 AD. Today, the books of the Apocrypha are included in Catholic versions of the OT, but not in most Protestant versions.

During the first century AD Latin replaced Greek as the language of the Roman Empire. In 405 a Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments was completed. This version, known as the Vulgate, became the standard Bible of Christianity for many centuries.

John Wycliffe did the first complete translation of the Bible into English in 1380 before the invention of the printing press. He was unable to read Greek so he translated from previous Latin versions of the Bible. His efforts to translate the Bible into the common language of the people were severely opposed by church authorities. In 1428, following his death, to show their contempt for his work, the church ordered that Wycliffe's bones be dug up, burned, and the ashes be cast into the River Swift.

In 1525, William Tyndale produced the first printed version of the NT in English. Realizing that the Latin versions had grown full of errors through centuries of copying, he translated from available Greek manuscripts. As with Wycliffe, Tyndale's work met with anger and persecution. He was burned at the stake in 1536; copies of his book were burned as well.

After Tyndale, there were other efforts to translate the Bible into English: Coverdale Bible, 1535; The Great Bible, 1539; Taverner's Bible, 1539; The Geneva Bible, 1560; The Bishop's Bible, 1568; The Rheims-Douai Bible, 1582. Things had suddenly changed from no Bible in the language of the people to several from which to choose, thereby bringing about confusion and division.

Thus, in 1604, King James ordered a group of scholars to translate the Bible as accurately as possible from the original languages. The result is the Authorized Version, commonly known as the King James Version, printed in 1611. The original KJV of 1611 was actually in an older form of English (most likely Middle English); it was revised several times: 1629, 1638, 1762, and finally in 1769. This last revision differed from the original in about 75,000 places.

In 1870 it was felt that the KJV needed revising. Scholars had learned a great deal more about the Greek and Hebrew languages since 1611. These scholars also had the benefit of many recently found manuscripts, many of which were much older than those used by the KJV translators. This revision was published in 1881 as the English Revised Version. In 1901, the same revision (with a few minor spelling changes) was published in the United States as the American Standard Version.

The balance of this article will cover the major modern translations in the order they were published.

(KJV) The King James Version of the Bible (1611) commissioned by James I of England to settle matters being disputed within the Church of England. 47 men divided into six groups translated it. The KJV's style and rhythm won it a secure and enduring popularity in the English-speaking world. Its archaic language, though, can obscure the true meaning for the modern reader.

(ASV) The American Standard Version Of The Bible (1901) updating the KJV, was based on new and more accurate translations of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. About 100 men of various religious backgrounds translated the ASV. It does retain much of the archaic language of the KJV.

 (RSV) The Revised Standard Version (1952) sponsored by the National Council of Churches on behalf of its member denominations, 22 people translated this version. This was the first version to have access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947.

(NEB) The New English Bible, published in 1961 (New Testament) and 1970 (Old Testament and Apocrypha) was sponsored by all the major Christian churches of Great Britain.  It was designed to be at totally new translation, not bound to the tradition of the King James, but to use freely the idiom of "the present day." This version is called a "free translation" which makes it very easy to read, but which also invariably takes away from its accuracy and faithfulness to the original texts.

(TEV) Today's English Version was originally issued as Good News for Modern Man (1966) then updated in 1967 and 1971. This version was produced by the American Bible Society using a very colloquial style with its vocabulary limited to the most commonly used English words.

(TLB) The Living Bible (1971) is a popular paraphrased version written by one man, Kenneth N. Taylor, who began this version to help his own children understand the New Testament Letters of Paul. As a result, the language is exceptionally clear and direct, making this Bible suitable for all ages. This version has been released with other names (The Book). By nature the accuracy of any paraphrased version is subject to debate. Scholars don't like this version of the Bible at all.

 (NASB) The New American Standard Bible (1971) is a scholarly update of the 1901 ASV. Sponsored by the Lockman Foundation, the 58 translators used the best available Greek and Hebrew texts as a guide.

(NIV) The New International Version Of The Bible (1978) is a completely new translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew texts sponsored by the New York International Bible Society. Over 100 people translated this version in a clear, direct, modern English which makes it easy to read and understand. The NIV is by far the most widely read and well thought of translations today.

(NKJV) The New King James Version (1982) is the work of 130 translators from several different religious groups and countries. Their purpose was to maintain the tradition of the KJV while updating many of the problems contained therein.

(NRSV) The New Revised Standard Version Bible, published by The National Council of Churches in 1989, is an update of the highly regarded Revised Standard Version of 1952. The language is very modern and tries on all counts to be gender inclusive. The style is more traditional than the NIV. This is the "official" Bible of United Methodism. 

Most of the translations and paraphrases above come in a variety of formats. Most notably there are now excellent Study Bibles available, with the better ones being available in a variety of translations.

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