In case you weren’t aware, there are a lot of Study Bibles on the market. Like, a lot a lot. While the Study Bible market was pretty stagnant 30-40 years ago, an increase in scholarship and technology has made the Bible easier to read and study than ever before.
Why use a Study Bible?
The 66 books of the Bible were written thousands of years ago to people in cultures that are very different from the Western Culture in which we live today. As such, a good Study Bible will help you, the reader, better understand the purpose and meaning of the Biblical text.
Which Study Bible is ‘best’?
This is a ridiculously challenging question to answer. I often respond by saying, “The ‘best’ Bible is the one you’re reading.” But most people who are looking to study God’s Word are looking for more specifics. 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, every Study Bible has different features, different scholars, different goals, and in the end, each one provides a different study experience for the reader. Below is a simple breakdown of several options available today. Which one you may choose to read and study with is up to you, but I’ve done my best to offer some recommendations depending on what you think may be most beneficial for you.
Please note that the following list and information is provided in no specific order. Also note that the majority of these Study Bibles are large and heavy. As such, information on digital versions are available at the end of this post.
NLT or NIV Life Application Study Bible, Third Edition (Translation: New Living Translation or New International Version)
Who is the NLT (or NIV) Life Application Study Bible for?
The Life Application Study Bible (LASB) is the best selling Study Bible of all time, and for good reason. Personally, I would wholeheartedly recommend the The NLT (or NIV) Life Application Study Bible as somebody’s first Study Bible. Even if it’s not your first Study Bible, it’s worth having one of these on your shelf.
From a marketing perspective, the publisher notes that the LASB is the most complete Bible ever compiled. Even though this is nothing more than marketing hype, there’s a lot to love about the NLT (or NIV) LASB.
All in all, the LASB is an excellent all around Study Bible that does a great job of explaining how to apply each passage by answering the question, “So what?” For example, you may read the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and ask, “So what?” But the LASB provides an in-depth commentary note, stating:
“Why were the Ten Commandments necessary for God’s new nation? At the foot of Mount Sinai, God showed his people the true function and beauty of His laws. The commandments were designed to lead Israel to a life of practical holiness. In them, people could see the nature of God and his plan for how they should live. The commands and guidelines were intended to direct the community to meet the needs of each individual in a loving and responsible manner. By Jesus’ time, however, most people had come to look at the law the wrong way. They saw it as a means to prosperity in both this world and the next. And they thought that obeying every law was the way to earn God’s protection from foreign invasion and natural disaster. They failed to see that keeping the law should be the means to fulfill God’s ultimate law of love.”
Even though the very first Life Application Study Bible was released 30 years ago, a tremendously updated Third Edition was released in October 2019. This new edition has 30-40% new material compared to the previous editions. While it may not be as colorful as the NIV Zondervan Study Bible mentioned below, it contains wonderful commentary, profiles on about 150 people throughout the Bible, and hundreds of charts and maps.
Here is a link to more of my thoughts on the most recent release of the NLT Life Application Study Bible.
NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Translation: New International Version)
Who is the NIV Zondervan Study Bible for?
Released in 2015, the NIVZSB is an excellent all around Study Bible that brings additional insight and clarity to the text. I would place it as another excellent option for somebody’s first Study Bible. The commentary notes are a little lengthier than the NLT Study Bible, and as such it’s quite heavy. Nevertheless, it’s also gorgeous, with a colored font to make headings and commentary notes easier to find, as well as charts and images that really pop.
A few years ago I did a personal study of the Psalms, and the NIVZSB became my go-to resource when looking for a brief summary of the purpose or meaning of each Psalm. All in all, it’s another excellent Study Bible.
If you want to have a closer look, here’s a sampler that offers additional insights into the NIVZSB.
NLT Study Bible (Translation: New Living Translation)
Who is the NLT Study Bible for? The NLT Study Bible is generally a perfect fit for somebody’s first Study Bible. The translation is easy to read and understand, the commentary notes are written in a way that bring clarity to the text, and the book introductions help bring some clarity to who wrote each book and it’s purpose. For those who want to take the extra step of studying some key Greek/Hebrew words, there’s a way to do that as well. The NLT Study Bible may not be the most colorful one available today, but it’s often the one I recommend to most people seeking their first Study Bible.
If you want to have a closer look here’s a sampler that offers additional insights into the NLT Study Bible.
ESV Study Bible (Translation: English Standard Version)
Who is the ESV Study Bible for?
Personally, I would only recommend the ESV Study Bible to a college graduate and/or somebody who wants to go deeper into the biblical text than the NLTSB or NIVZSB will go. Honestly, that’s pretty high praise for the ESVSB, because the NLTSB and NIVZSB are quite in depth!
But when it comes to the ESV translation, I confess I’m not a fan. While the ESV text does an excellent job of providing a more direct translation of the Greek/Hebrew text than the NLT or NIV, it also has the possibility of making it more challenging to read as the verbiage may come across a bit archaic.
Still, 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. Finally, the book introductions are probably some of the best that are offered in a Study Bible. It’s likely the heaviest of all the Study Bibles mentioned here, because it’s got A LOT of information provided.
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.
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Translation: New International Version)
Who is the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible for?
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is perfect for the college graduate or History Education major who has a real interest in ancient cultures. While I wouldn’t recommend it to just anybody, it is currently my go-to Study Bible each and every morning.
To be clear, the NIVCBSB generally steers clear of theology and notes that answer the question, “What does this text mean?” What it does really well, however, is answer the question, “What did this text mean to the people who first read it?” It’s an important distinction, as we may not often think about the Code of Hammurapi and other cultural laws known to the people in ancient Israel. Nor may we consider the cultural significance of Jonathan giving his tunic to David in 1 Samuel 18. But for those fascinated with ancient culture and/or archaeology and don’t mind reading commentary written in a scholarly manner, the NIVCBSB is excellent.
If you’re interested, here’s a sampler of the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible that includes the full books of Genesis and Matthew. You’ll likely be able to decide very quickly if the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is for you or not.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible (Translation: English Standard Version)
Who is the ESV Archaeology Study Bible for?
The ESVASB was just released in 2018, and was published by a different publisher than the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, with different scholars contributing. In other words, the ESV Archaeology Study Bible has a slightly different focus than the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. That said, I would still only recommend it to those with a high interest in ancient cultures and/or archaeology.
At this time, I don’t have much to say about it as I’ve only read a few excerpts. That said, the few that I did compare with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible were similar, but the ESVASB noted some more details on archaeological discoveries that the CBSB didn’t cover. And in other places, the CBSB had more details on the ancient cultures that the ESVASB didn’t cover.
If you’re interested, here’s a sampler of the ESV Archaeology Study Bible that includes the full book of Philippians.
CSB Study Bible (Translation: Christian Standard Bible)
Who is the CSB Study Bible for?
The CSBSB is an updated version of what was formerly known as the Holman Christian Standard Bible. It has a number of similarities to the NLTSB, NIVZSB, and ESVSB noted above. Honestly, the biggest difference between these four are the translations used. For those unacquainted with the CSB, it reads very much like the NIV.
Admittedly, one thing the translators of the CSB did well is with the translation of John 3:16, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His one and only Son…” The phrase in this way is the best translation of the Greek.
The one thing that most sets apart the CSB Study Bible from some of the others already mentioned is that Greek/Hebrew Word Studies are available throughout the commentary, and the editors really made them stand out. These word studies bring additional clarity to the text without the need to flip to the back of the Study Bible.
If you want to have a closer look, here’s a sampler that offers additional insights into the CSBSB.
There are dozens of other Study Bibles out there. Personally, I’d like to get my hands on the CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible as well as the Complete Jewish Study Bible by David H. Stern. If I ever get my hands on these, I’ll be sure to include a brief overview in this post.
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These Bibles are HUGE! Isn’t there a better way?
I’m not going to lie, I read kindle books on my iPad a lot. A lot a lot. Like, almost every day. But over the past five years I’ve slowly moved from reading God’s Word digitally to reading it on paper. There’s just something about reading/studying the Bible distraction free. And distractions come a bit too easily to me when I’m staring at a screen. But I digress…
Almost all of the Study Bibles mentioned above are available digitally. What’s the best way to read them?
- AVOID Study Bibles on the Kindle app. They’re generally hard to navigate, and will likely cause more frustration than it’s worth.
- USE an app or software program designed for Bible Study. Olive Tree and Logos are both excellent.
Regarding Olive Tree: Study Bibles often go on sale, and their customer support may be willing to provide it a lower cost. For example, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible has it’s own app (designed by Olive Tree) for $19.99, but the same Study Bible provided as an in-app-purchase runs $29.99. A simple email to customer support will likely land you the IAP for the same price of $19.99, and you can run it all within the same Olive Tree App with additional Study Resources. Olive Tree is also available on Mac/PC, and your resources, highlights, notes will sync between devices.
Regarding Logos: Logos is a premier Bible Study software, with a ridiculous number of resources. If you really want to dive into the Biblical text and have several commentaries, bible dictionaries, word studies, and a ton of additional information, it’s the go-to software program. That said, you get what you pay for, and you’ll be paying a lot for a package on Logos. Still, the software itself is a free download for Mac/PC and the app is free as well. Those who download the app can also receive a free copy of the Faithlife Study Bible, which is yet another excellent resource. Finally, individual books / Study Bibles can be purchased directly from Logos, so buying a large package isn’t necessary. And like Olive Tree, all resources, highlights, and notes will sync between devices.
The main benefit of any software or app is that you can read your preferred translation right next to your preferred Study Bible. So if you want to read the New Living Translation next to the ESV Study Bible notes, you can do that.
What do I use?
Short answer: both
Long answer: I use Olive Tree for basic Bible Reading / Study Bible use (excellent in a Small Group setting or personal reading) and I use Logos for deeper study.
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Have a question about one of these Study Bibles or perhaps another one not mentioned here? Feel free to leave a comment I’ll do my best to answer!