what study bible is right for me?

Every once in a while I’ll receive a question about the various Study Bibles that are available. While some are interested in questions about different Bible Translations, others are even more interested in the study notes, maps and other features that are often included in Study Bibles.

Questions often asked include, “Which one is the ‘best’? Which one will help me to know God better? Which one is the right one for me?”

I oftentimes answer these types of questions with a simple phrase. “The ‘best’ Bible is the one you’re reading.” But people want more info. than that. They’re looking to invest some money into a Bible that they’ll likely be reading for years and years. So…which one is best for you?

Well, that’s a tough question to answer. Every Study Bible has different features, different scholars, different goals, and in the end, each one provides a different study experience for the reader. That said, I think there are three available Study Bibles today that will offer the best study experience for you. Below, is a simple breakdown of each one. Which one you choose to read and study with is up to you, but it’s my hope that this will at least provide some insights as to some fantastic resources available today.

#1: NLT Study Bible

Translation: New Living Translation (NLT)

Reading Level: 6-7th

What I Like:

1. The Translation: If I were only allowed to make one Study Bible recommendation, the NLT Study Bible would be at the top of my list. The goal of the New Living Translation was to translate the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts into English in the clearest possible manner. A number of challenging passages are easy to read, and the NLT just ‘makes sense’ to people. If you’re looking for your first Study Bible, I would highly recommend giving the NLT Study Bible a serious look.IMG_1218

2. The Footnotes: The Study Notes in any Study Bible make it or break it. When it comes to the NLT, the Study Notes make it. The footnotes will either provide additional insights into the passage being read/studied, or suggestions for how the passage can applied in real life. It’s the best of both worlds. And for the passages or topics that need even additional care or study, the NLT Study Bible has extra articles included in the text to cover those as well.

3. Greek/Hebrew Study: Throughout the text, specific words are included in the cross references that provide a Greek or Hebrew word that’s worth additional study. The reader has to turn to the back of the Bible to look up the definition of that word to see how or why it was translated as it was, but including the Greek/Hebrew word study is a nice touch and is very helpful for daily study.

4. Book Introductions: While the Book Introductions in the NLT Study Bible aren’t as detailed as some other ones out there, they still provide a good background of the book and the culture in which it was written. This is necessary when reading the Bible, because you have to understand not what the text means to you, but what it meant to the people who first read it. So a good and thorough book introduction is necessary to help, and while the NLT could provide more detail, it’s enough to communicate the main purpose of the book.

What I Don’t Like:

There’s very little I don’t like about the NLT Study Bible. Every once in a while I’ll read a passage that I don’t care for the translation when compared to others, but oftentimes it’s the opposite. Seriously, there’s just a lot to like about the NLT Study Bible, and it would be my first recommendation to most people. If you’re interested, here’s a sample that’ll give some additional insights into the NLT Study Bible.

#2: HCSB Study Bible

Translation: Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

Reading Level: 7-8th

What I Like:

The Translation: The HCSB is one of the newer translations available (honestly, some of my seminary professors have never heard of it), but continues gaining popularity due to it’s translation style and conservative nature. Some interesting aspects of the HCSB include the use of Yahweh for the name of God throughout the Old Testament, whereas many translations simply translate God’s name as LORD. The HCSB reading level is about 7-8th grade, right in line with the NIV and others as well.

The Footnotes: While not fully on par with the NLT Study Bible, the footnotes in the HCSB are quite good. Fantastic in fact. Over 15,000 notes are included. But it’s not just the footnotes that make this a great Study Bible. This particular Study Bible is FULL of color. The verse numbers and footnotes are an offset blue color, making it easier to find specific passages and footnotes and then get back right to where you left off.IMG_1219

Greek/Hebrew Study: The HCSB wins over the NLT in this one, as the Hebrew and Greek word studies are included right on the same page. You don’t have to turn to the back of the Bible to look up specific words, but can simply read the definition and significance of that word in Hebrew or Greek, and then get back into your reading. It’s a great feature, and one I wish the NLT Study Bible had used as well.

Book Introductions: Here again, we have lots of color. Each book begins on different colored paper, which makes it look nice, but it doesn’t really add any significant book introduction features to the NLT.

What I Don’t Like:

As noted above, I truly believe the best Bible is the one you’re reading, and the HCSB is a fantastic Study Bible. If I had to offer some cons, I would say that this Bible is a little heavier than the NLT Study Bible, and it offers a lesser quality (if only slightly) footnotes than the NLT. However, the translation itself has been my preferred translation for a few years now. If you’re interested, here’s a video that’ll give you some additional insights into the HCSB Study Bible.

#3 ESV Study Bible

Translation: English Standard Version (ESV)

Reading Level: 10th

What I Like:

The Translation: The ESV does a good job of providing a more direct translation of the Greek/Hebrew text than say, the NLT does. This is sometimes a very good thing, as it does provide some additional insight into the original language. However, it may have some cons as well, as it has the possibility of making it more challenging to read, forcing you to read the study notes when you may not need to if you were reading a different translation. The bottom line is that when you’re studying a text, sometimes it’s good to read it in multiple translations, but when you have just one Study Bible, you only get one choice. The ESV is a good choice. It’s not my first choice, but it’s a good choice.IMG_1220

The Footnotes: The ESV Study Bible footnotes are regarded as some of the best of the best out there. And on passages where a number of different scholarly views are held, the ESV will often list the 3-4 different views, without telling you which is the ‘right’ one. This is a great study tool, as it then gives you something to go on should you desire to give the passage even more study. While the footnotes aren’t as colorful as the HCSB, they’re more detailed, and that’s a good thing.

Greek/Hebrew Study: I don’t see any specific Greek/Hebrew word studies in the ESV Study Bible. But there are perhaps more charts/graphs here than the others, which is a great benefit to understanding the text in a more systematic way. Still, if you like diving into the original languages, you’ll miss out in the ESV Study Bible.

Book Introductions: The ESV Study Bible probably has the best book introductions of the three. They’re detailed, and provide tremendous insight into the style and structure of each book, as well as the purpose. Yes, the NLT and HCSB have good Bible introductions, but the ones here are even better.

What I Don’t Like:

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a huge fan of the ESV. Of the three translations covered here, it’s the highest reading level. Also, the lack of original word studies is a minus. That said, the ESV is still one of the best Study Bibles out there, and the footnotes (if that’s your thing) are probably the most detailed of the three mentioned here. If you’re interested, here’s an intro to the book of Ephesians, that’ll show you the quality of notes and book introductions of the ESV Study Bible.


I hope you find this mini-review of these Study Bibles helpful! If you would happen to have any additional questions, the pastoral staff here at SRC have each of these Bible on our bookshelves. If you’d like a little more hands-on time before deciding which one is best for you, just let us know. We’d be happy to help you out any time.

For additional insights on each Study Bible, feel free to check out the following links:

NLT Study Bible

HCSB Study Bible

ESV Study Bible

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