Building A Basic Bible Study Library
June 22, 2005
The best way to get to understand the Bible is simply to read it and to read it regularly in different versions. I'm always amazed at how critical some people can be of the Bible without ever having read it! However, whether you've just started studying the Bible or have been a regular Bible reader for years, you soon realize that there are some things in the Bible which are difficult to understand. In fact, the Apostle Peter wrote that his fellow Apostle Paul's, "letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16).
This article will provide an overview of some the basic tools that every student of the Bible should have as they begin to build a basic Bible study library. A basic Bible study library is composed of the following:
The Study Tools channel will regularly review examples of all of these tools, (as well as many others) but I will give you a brief overview and some simple recommendations so that you can start building your basic Bible study library. In future articles, I will make more specific recommendations for tools useful to scholars, ministers, parents, students, teens, and other particular groups of Bible readers. Soon, you will be able to purchase some of these resources through the Shopping link on this Web site, but for now, I've included links to other online bookstores.
A basic Bible study library starts off with'a Bible! You probably already have one of those, but for better Bible study you really want to have several translations of the Bible. A translation is simply a Bible that has been translated into a language other than the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. The Bible is, by far, the most translated book ever written. Bible translations in a particular language -- say English -- may come in different versions in that language. A version is a particular attempt at translating the Bible into that language. People always want to read the Bible in a language that makes sense to them, so new versions come out quite frequently in popular languages such as English, French, Spanish, and German. In practice, the terms version and translation are often used interchangeably.
Translations can usually be grouped according to their philosophy of translation. A so-called literal translation tries to translate terms in the original language as consistently as possible and also tries to keep close to the original word order within a sentence. Idioms (i.e., phrases which mean something different from their literal meaning) are also translated word-for-word. Literal translations are most useful as aids in learning the original languages but are less useful for normal Bible study. This is because no language can really be translated directly into another language. There are some things that can't be expressed by only using a single word.
At the other extreme, paraphrases take the meaning of the original language and freely express this meaning in the new language. Paraphrases are most useful for simple Bible reading or for some devotional reading where you just want to get to know the story. A paraphrase such as The Message should not be relied upon as a main study Bible or when the actual details of the text matter in your study. Strictly speaking, a paraphrase is not a translation but rather, a retelling of the original in the words of the paraphrase's author (most paraphrases are the work of a single individual'another reason not to rely upon them for serious Bible study).
Most modern translations tend to favor a dynamic equivalency between faithfulness to the original language and meaning and readability in the new language. Such versions try to accurately translate the meaning of words, idioms, and concepts but do not try to preserve word order or narrow the range of meaning of a word. Such an approach can often result in a translation that captures the best of both the literal and the free approaches.
Regardless of the type of translation, no translation fully captures the nuances of the original languages. For this reason, it is best to have and use several versions in your Bible study. Your basic Bible study library should contain versions using each of the approaches we've just discussed (for example, a King James Version, a New International Version, and a New Living Translation). As mentioned previously, most major languages have multiple versions available including an older, 'classical' version (e.g. Reina Valera, Louis Segond), updated or revised versions of these classics, and new, modern translations and paraphrases.
I should mention that the quality and variety of translations/versions available today allow us to read the Bible with confidence that we are reading the Word of God even if we haven't learned how to read the Bible in the original languages. A great starter book to go along with your Bible reading is How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
Finally, I strongly recommend that you read through the entire Bible'or at least the entire biblical book you plan to study'first before relying the various tools described below to help you understand the Bible. There is no substitute for actually reading the Bible!
A concordance lets you find a passage if you can remember some of the words. Many of you have a small concordance in the back of your Bible. This is useful for finding a particular passage when you only remember some of the words in it, but it is too small to be relied upon for serious word studies. And you definitely shouldn't think that the passage doesn't exist simply because you couldn't find it in the concordance in the back of your Bible! Your basic Bible study library should contain an exhaustive concordance keyed to your primary Bible version. An exhaustive concordance tells you where every word of the Bible in a particular version and language can be found. It usually contains helps for the original languages so that you can find every word translated from a single Greek or Hebrew word, for example. Good English examples include the NIV Exhaustive Concordance and Strong's Exhaustive Concordance (available for several versions of the Bible).
A topical Bible is sort of like a concordance with Bible verses listed under topical headings (e.g., knowledge, fruit, love, parenting, etc.). The topics are usually in alphabetical order. This tool is quite useful for doing conceptual word studies (i.e., studying a specific concept or theme throughout the Bible) because the actual word doesn't have to be in the passage for it to be listed; only the concept needs to be there (e.g., Isaiah 53 might be listed under Messiah, even though that word does not appear in the passage). For doing studies of a specific word and the different ways that word is used in the Bible, an exhaustive concordance is a more appropriate tool. However, simple topical studies (e.g, 'What does the Bible teach about forgiveness?') are very common and can be quite illuminating. English examples include Naves Topical Bible and the Zondervan Topical Bible.
A Bible dictionary lets you look up names, places, books, people, and events in the Bible and get some brief background on the term you are interested in. This is a very useful tool for getting the general background of a biblical book before reading it or for answering specific questions about unfamiliar terms in a particular passage. I can recommend Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible as a good, comprehensive, generally doctrinally sound Bible dictionary.
A Bible handbook gives an overview of the contents of the Bible. It may also discuss customs, weights, measures, the literary background of each book (author, date, situation, background, etc.) and other related issues. There are many different types of these books, but for your basic Bible study library I would recommend starting with Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible edited by J.I. Packer and M.C. Tenney.
Bible surveys and Introductions are usually used as textbooks in Bible courses. A survey gives an overview of the contents of the biblical books, but at a more detailed level than a bible handbook, with in-depth discussions on the author, date, historical setting, purpose, etc. of each book. An introduction covers areas such as canonicity (how did the book get into the Bible), language, customs, historical background, sociological background, geography, the history of the text as we have it today (i.e., textual criticism), and other technical issues. For your basic Bible study library, I recommend Encountering the Old Testament as an introduction to the Old Testament books and Encountering the New Testament as a New Testament introduction, both of which are published by Baker Books.
The following tools can be very useful, but are not recommended for your basic Bible study library. In other words, they can be added to your library later, after you have learned how to make full use of the basic tools described in this article.
Generally, a commentary is an exhaustive, verse-by-verse analysis of a particular biblical book. Most commentary series actually have a separate volume for each book in the Bible (similar to an encyclopedia set). There are different flavors of commentary depending upon the intended audience. The main flavors include devotional, academic, and expository (for preaching). The best commentaries analyze an entire book, passage by passage, and give all of the important opinions (with evidence) for particular interpretations of difficult passages. In addition to catering to different audiences, commentaries are also heavily influenced by the presuppositions held by the author(s) regarding biblical inspiration and infallibility. So, some commentaries are very conservative in nature, others are very liberal, while many are balanced in their views of the Bible being the inspired, infallible word of God. The major area where this becomes an issue is in the treatment of prophecy. Conservative commentaries generally believe that predictive prophecies are possible. Very liberal commentaries assume that predictive prophecy is not possible forcing them to suggest very late dates for the writing of many biblical texts because they must have been written after the events they "predict."
A study Bible is a single volume with mini-versions of all of the tools mentioned earlier built-in. There are so many study Bibles available in English that it is difficult to buy a 'plain' Bible anymore! A study Bible can be useful after you have learned to use the basic tools and provided you have access to the more complete tools when necessary. One of the biggest dangers involved in relying heavily upon a study Bible is that the tools are often inadequate for comprehensive Bible study, but you may think that you're getting the complete picture. A further difficulty is that most study Bibles published today are really marketing tools designed by the publishers to sell more Bibles. They often have a very strong bias toward some particular type of theology or marketing segment such as men, women, teens, etc.. While this can be helpful for devotional study, it is not always helpful for full understanding of the Bible. Lastly, many of the notes in study Bibles often blatantly contradict the actual text of the Bible!
Bible software is available for desktop computers, online on the Internet, for PDAs like the Palm or Pocket PC, and even in dedicated, handheld Bible readers like the Franklin Bookman Bibles. I highly recommend using Bible software. For some users, it can almost replace your entire Bible study library (which I don't recommend doing for various reasons I will explain in a later article).
At no other time in history have so many tools been available and affordable to the general population. The tools described in this article will help you to develop a deeper understanding of the Bible. However, remember to be sure you live out the message and:
"Do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves. For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out'he will be blessed in what he does. Be conscientious about how you live and what you teach. Persevere in this, because by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you" (James 2:22-25 and 1 Timothy 4:16 NET).