Whether you are a new believer or a seasoned theologian, a study bible can be a valuable tool in your spiritual growth and understanding of the Bible.
But there are a bunch to choose from. Each major translation has at least one or two. And what’s the difference between interpretation study Bibles and application study Bibles?
The study Bible market can be a bit confusing, so we’ll be reviewing and comparing some of the top study bibles on the market, taking into consideration factors such as translation, notes and commentary, and additional resources.
Let’s dive in and explore the best options available to help you gain a deeper understanding of God’s word.
What is a Study Bible?
A study Bible is simply a Bible with additional information intended to help you get a better understanding of the scriptures. It’s like a Bible and a commentary in one.
Most study Bibles include:
- Lots of explanatory notes including commentary and interpretations
- Historical notes helping you get a better feel for the time and place
- Intros to each book of the Bible with historical and contextual information
- Topical notes tracing certain themes through the Bible
- Maps depicting where events took place
- Notes on how the Bible is organized and arranged
- Some contain word studies to help you understand why a certain word was chosen in the translation
- Illustrations and photos
- Notes on how to read and understand the Bible
One of the first Bibles to contain extensive notes was the Geneva Bible published in 1560. A few centuries later, the Scofield Reference Bible laid the foundation for many of our study Bibles today. Now, nearly every translation has at least one or two different versions of their own study Bibles.
What to Look for in a Study Bible
Because most study Bibles have a lot of the same features, what should you be looking for in your own? How should you determine what type of study Bible is best for you?
Bible Versions and Translations
It probably makes sense to start with the Bible version or translation you’re most comfortable with. For example, if you typically read from the ESV, you might want to narrow your search by looking for ESV study Bibles (they publish a few different ones).
If you’re not familiar with Bible translations, there are plenty available these days. Translators take the original texts in Hebrew and Greek and work to translate them into modern English. There’s a kind of spectrum from formal equivalence to functional equivalence that all Bibles fall.
Formal equivalence refers to word-for-word translation. These include the ESV, NASB, RSV, and more. These Bibles seek to translate each individual word faithfully from their original languages. Their weakness is that sometimes the words don’t work together very cleanly in English.
Dynamic equivalence refers to thought-for-thought translation. These Bibles include the CSB, NIV, and GNB. These Bibles provide a happy medium between word-for-word and paraphrased versions of the Bible.
Functional equivalence refers to versions of the Bible that paraphrase entire sections to be more readable and applicable to modern readers. Some say that these Bibles are less so translations of the Bible, and more so commentaries. These include The Message Bible and The Passion Translation.
So start by choosing the version of Bible you want.
Interpretation vs Application Study Bibles
Once you’ve decided on what version of the Bible you want for your study Bible, you’re probably left with 1-3 options. Many versions of the Bible only have one published study Bible. But some contain a few.
Another differentiator in study Bibles is whether they focus strictly on interpretation and commentary or application and inspiration, too. Some Bibles, like the ESV Study Bible, stick to strict commentary on the text (exegesis). While others, like the NIV Life Application Bible, go further and suggest ways you might apply the texts to your life.
Some prefer application study Bibles, while others prefer interpretation study Bibles, and to their own application with the help of the Holy Spirit and in community.
The 4 Most Helpful Study Bibles for 2023
Now that you’ve got a good feel for different types of study Bibles and how to choose one that works for you, here are four of our favorite and most helpful study Bibles for Bible readers in 2023:
ESV's Study Bible is full of helpful material from start to finish to help you better understand the Bible. It might be one of the thickest study bibles in print, with thousands and thousands of explanations, teaching, and reference material. It includes 240 maps, intros to each book, timelines, and much more. It's pretty large and heavy, but worth it for the insights contained.
The ESV Concise Study Bible is perfect for someone looking for additional context on what they're reading, but don't need 30,000 words of study notes. It's also perfect for anyone on-the-go regularly who doesn't want to lug around a 10 pound chunk of Bible. It contains the most essential notes, charts, and maps of the full ESV Study Bible. And lastly, it only costs around $15 – a solid deal.
The NIV study Bible is another great option for a study bible – with 21,000 study notes, 125 topical articles, and the NIV Concordance with nearly 4800 word entries – it's a really comprehensive Bible. Another big perk of the NIV is that it's often (not always – depends on Zondervan's promotional calendar) around $10 cheaper than the ESV study bible.
The CSB study bible is another great option for Bible readers to go a little deeper into the scriptures. It comes with 15,000 words of study notes, 368 word studies, 55 maps, and lots of paintings and illustrations to help you visualize different scenes and concepts. The illustrations and colored images really make the CSB stand out.