In conversations with people about the Bible I am often asked which resources would help them study and understand the scriptures. I usually respond with a series of questions about the resources they already have.
One of the first things I ask is, “Do you have a good study Bible?” I am surprised at how frequently the answer is, “No.”
So I have decided to post a series of blogs on essential tools for reading and studying the Bible. And the very first resource that every literate Christian should own is a good study Bible.
“Why Should I Use a Study Bible?”: The Benefits of a Study Bible
There are plenty of reasons why a good study Bible will help the Christian committed to learning what the scriptures teach. In subsequent posts I will give my reviews, evaluations, and recommendations of some of the most common study Bibles available today. In the remainder of this post I will outline some of the features and benefits of a quality study Bible.
Many study Bibles will have introductions at the beginning of each biblical book. Book introductions help the reader of scripture to get an idea of the key background information about the book. These might include the author, the date of composition, where it was written, to whom it was written, etc. Some introductions provide some of the key themes, terms, concepts, and even a survey of the basic theological message. Often included in these introductions is a helpful outline to capture the literary flow of the book.
Maps are critical in many instances to know where the events described took place and to help locate some of the people groups mentioned. Some Bible maps not only have geographical information but also topographical data as well. Illustrations are also helpful with the more recent editions having color photographs and even satellite images.
Chronological time-lines of biblical events alongside other key events and figures of the ancient Near East is essential to grasping the historical perspective of the biblical storyline. Charts are also helpful for things like genealogies and lists of kings, etc.
Perhaps the most commonly recognized feature of study Bibles are the study notes themselves. These notes offer a brief explanatory comment on a word, phrase, verse or series of verses and are typically located at the bottom of the page for prompt and convenient reference.
This is an alphabetical listing of all (or nearly all) significant words in the text with a list of references of where that word occurs including a short excerpt of that verse’s immediate context. This is helpful if you are trying to locate a verse and can only remember a word or two.
This is one of my favorite study tools and likely the most beneficial tool that readers of the Bible are not using. Cross-references are common in non-study Bibles, but tend to be more extensive in study Bibles. These are small notations in the biblical text that connect a key word or concept in that verse to other passages that address similar information. This is particularly helpful in noticing quotations and inter-textual allusions.
As with any tool, these can be harmful when not used as they are intended. I hope to provide detailed information about how to properly use them — and how not to use them! — in following posts. Nevertheless, these tools are what make study Bibles so valuable to understanding the biblical text in a deeper way and will aid followers of Jesus to the wonderful joy of comprehending what the scriptures teach. Perhaps a good study Bible may cause us to be like those in the days of Nehemiah who, “went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Nehemiah 8:12 NIV).