Building a Bible Study Library
You may wonder why, if you have the Bible, you need any other books. So before you read about which books we recommend, please note the following points:
1. These books do not replace the Bible.
No books, despite what great scholarship they contain or how devotional they are, can replace the Bible. But Bible helps can deepen our appreciation for, and understanding of, the Word of God.
2. These books are not academic, but practical.
The books we are recommending were written for ordinary people who want to understand more about the Bible. The fact that you are reading this article suggests that you fall into this category. Buying a Bible atlas, a Bible dictionary or a topical help is not an exercise in intellectual vanity. It is a practical way to enrich your Bible studies.
3. These books do not undermine the Bible’s teachings.
To some people, "biblical scholarship" is a plot of Satan to destroy the credibility of God’s Word. Yet we are commanded to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18). Our aim in recommending various Bible helps is to enable you to fulfill that command. These books will make you better able to defend the truth of the Bible.
4. These books do not cost a fortune.
Building a Bible-study library is a life-long process. Take your time and enjoy it. If all you can afford is to buy one Bible-related book a year, then do that. Used books work just as well as new books, of course, and are much less expensive. You can also find many standard Bible references at the library.
With just a Bible and this course, you can enjoy many hours of effective study, but you may wish to add other books when you can afford to. By the time you have a study Bible, a Bible atlas, a Bible dictionary and a topical help, you will have good basic tools for a lifetime of profitable Bible study. If you later add a one-volume commentary and a book on how we got the Bible, you have the basis for an excellent personal library.
5. These books are not infallible.
Bible dictionaries sometimes disagree with each other on individual points. So do commentaries, atlases and various other helps. By recommending a commentary, atlas or dictionary, we do not mean to claim that the book has definitive answers on every subject it discusses. We do believe, however, that the books we recommend are generally reliable aids to profitable and enjoyable Bible study.
Choosing a study Bible
The Life Application Bible describes the function of any study Bible: "It helps you understand the context of a passage, gives important background and historical information, explains difficult words and phrases, and helps you see the interrelationships within Scripture." Study Bibles usually accomplish their mission through three special features: introductions to each book; accompanying notes and commentary to the biblical text; and other Bible-study aids or articles.
The Life Application Bible says that its special emphasis is "going deeper into God’s Word, helping you discover the timeless truth being communicated, see the relevance for your life, and make a personal application." The footnotes on each page are very practical. An index in the back links together footnotes on related subjects, providing a good study tool. The introductions to each book also emphasize practical application. However, there are few other study aids. The Life Application Bible is available in several translations — the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version and the King James Version, for example.
The notes in the Disciple’s Study Bible demonstrate how each biblical passage sheds light on the great themes and doctrines of the Bible: God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the world, humanity, revelation, election, redemption, salvation, discipleship, the church, worship, family, and evangelism. The introductions to the individual books are divided into four areas: theological setting, theological outline, theological conclusions and contemporary teaching. The outlines stress each book’s importance in God’s overall scheme. The doctrinal-reference index effectively links together the references to each doctrine. The Disciple’s Study Bible has more additional helps than The Life Application Bible but fewer than the Ryrie Study Bible or The Open Bible.
The notes and introductions in the Ryrie Study Bible are primarily informative rather than practical or doctrinal. Although not quite the equal of The Open Bible in its range and depth, the Ryrie Study Bible has articles on the ministry, miracles and parables of Jesus Christ, messianic prophecies, archaeology and the Bible, how we got our Bible, and several other topics. It contains a topical index of scripture, a concordance, maps and timeline charts.
The Open Bible is less helpful than many study Bibles in its notes, but excels in its numerous additional aids to Bible study: articles on archaeological discoveries and on the development of the English Bible; a biblical cyclopedic index, a brief harmony of the Gospels and a concordance; charts on the teachings of Jesus Christ, the parables, the messianic prophecies and the laws of the Bible.
The Thompson Chain Reference Bible is not really a study Bible — it does not have notes accompanying the scriptures or introductions to each book. However, it is unequalled in connecting scriptures on the same subject, and contains many additional Bible helps.
Other study Bibles have been published since we did the research for this article (1994). The NIV Study Bible is also a useful help. You might want to compare several study Bibles at a Christian book store.
Which study Bible you use depends on your requirements. If you cannot afford to buy any other Bible helps — such as a topical analysis or scripture finder, an atlas, a history of the Bible, or a book providing background to the Bible — then perhaps you would find a Thompson Chain Reference Bible, a Ryrie Study Bible or an Open Bible most helpful. We recommend a Life Application Bible or a Disciple’s Study Bible, and that you later acquire specialist books in the other categories. The Disciple’s Study Bible stresses a passage’s importance doctrinally, and the Life Application Bible emphasizes its relevance to Christian living.
A study Bible is all you need to do certain types of Bible study. One approach is to read two or three chapters, including all the notes in the study Bible as you come to them. Then meditate on the lessons you have learned from those chapters. Another method is to find a topic in the index of the study Bible, and go through all the references listed there. Read the scriptures and the study Bible’s notes. This is a simple but effective form of topical Bible study.
Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias
The purpose of Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias is "to make more widely available, and to an audience of nonspecialists, the results of the best of current biblical scholarship" (preface to Harper’s Bible Dictionary). The main difference between Bible dictionaries and Bible encyclopedias is that encyclopedias are usually multi-volume sets with longer articles.
We particularly recommend the New Bible Dictionary, which was produced to be "a work of reference, written in a spirit of unqualified loyalty to Holy Scripture, which will substantially further the understanding of God’s Word to mankind." Unlike most of its rivals, the New Bible Dictionary features an extensive index. If you look up "David," for example, it not only shows in bold type the page number of the article on David, but lists all the other pages where David is mentioned.
Other well-respected, one-volume Bible dictionaries include Harper’s Bible Dictionary and the much older Unger’s Bible Dictionary. In terms of picturesque presentation, the Revel Bible Dictionary (now out of print) is outstanding. Either of these may help promote family Bible study. The New Bible Dictionary and Harper’s Bible Dictionary contain better scholarship, however.
If you can afford to invest in a multi-volume set, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia offers excellent value. The articles represent conservative scholarship at its best, and numerous photographs and drawings enhance its presentation.
When you do a topical Bible study, take out your Bible dictionary and read the articles relevant to the subject you are studying. This will enrich your Bible study and deepen your understanding of God’s Word.
If there is one tool that can really help the Bible come alive as you study, it is a Bible atlas. A good Bible atlas does much more than show you where the biblical events happened. The preface to the third revised edition of the Macmillan Bible Atlas states: "Historical Geography, putting the Bible on the map, is an attempt to understand the biblical events in their ecological and socio-cultural context. It is an essential component of biblical studies if we truly desire to empathize with the ancient people whose religious experience we claim to share."
Since its first appearance in 1968, The Macmillan Bible Atlas has been the foremost scholarly work in its field. It contains 271 carefully researched maps accompanied by informative text. An index that directs you from a particular biblical passage to the corresponding map, and a strong text-map relationship throughout, make The Macmillan Bible Atlas a good reference work for serious study. If what you want from a Bible atlas is to find accurate information relevant to the biblical passage or event you are studying, then this is the book for you. It is unequalled as an aid to studying any section of Scripture where a knowledge of historical geography is important. The third revised edition, completed in 1993, incorporates knowledge gained from recent archaeological surveys and excavations. Like its predecessors, it was written by top archaeologists and is the standard by which other atlases are judged.
Harper’s Bible Atlas (ed. James B. Pritchard) is an outstanding buy for families who want to learn more about the Bible in general. The strength of this atlas lies in its eye-catching presentation. It contains fewer maps than Macmillan’s, but the maps are significantly larger and in full color. Each two-page spread is designed to generate interest in a particular subject. In addition to the maps, numerous charts, diagrams, photographs and artistic reconstructions provide a wealth of information on related topics. Harper’s Bible Atlas is interesting reading — or browsing — in its own right, and its visual appeal will attract children. It can provide the springboard for family discussions about the Bible or for individual, topical Bible study.
Both these atlases have our full recommendation. You may wish to visit a bookstore, browse through them and decide which best suits your needs. Alternatives include The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands by Barry J. Beitzel and Reader’s Digest Atlas of the Bible (gen. ed. J.L. Gardner).
Scripture finders and topical helps
One of the first Bible helps most people buy is a concordance, such as Strong’s or Young’s. These are excellent tools for finding a scripture when you remember one of the key words in it (in the right translation). However, as tools for collating scriptures on the same subject, they have been superseded by works such as Topical Analysis of the Bible (ed. Walter A. Elwell) and The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (ed. Jerome H. Smith). Elwell states the purpose of such topical help: "To arrange the basic teachings of the Scriptures into a set of recognizable topics and present a full or representative collection of biblical passages that speak about each of those topics" (preface to Topical Analysis of the Bible). We recommend either of these books as a front-line Bible study aid. An older work, Nave’s Topical Bible, also scores quite highly in this category for the King James Version.
Use your topical help to find all the passages relevant to the subject you wish to study. Then read and study those passages in your own Bible. This simple method of Bible study is also one of the most effective.
To make your Bible study easier, scholars have also invented specialist tools for certain sections of the Bible.
A harmony of the Gospels places the parallel accounts of events in Jesus’ life in columns side by side. This enables the reader to compare the different accounts and gain insight on what was important to each Gospel writer. It also makes it easier to form a total picture of the event itself. Similarly, a harmony of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles places the account in Chronicles next to the parallel account in Samuel or Kings. Frank J. Goodwin’s A Harmony of the Life of St. Paul does the same for Acts and the epistles of Paul, but also includes some valuable commentary, giving the reader a deeper appreciation of Paul’s mission. These tools can save the student much time that would otherwise be required to find parallel accounts and flip between the different passages.
Studying with a harmony of the Gospels or other type of harmony is one type of Bible study that can be done without a Bible — the passages are in the harmony itself.
A history of the Bible
"Since the church holds that the Bible is its final authority in all matters of life and doctrine, it is only to be expected that all Bible readers would want to know as much as possible about the formation, transmission and translation of the Scriptures. Information about the Bible obviously is no substitute for a grasp of its message; but our appreciation for the Scriptures is bound to increase with a better understanding of its history" (David Ewert, From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations: A General Introduction to the Bible, Zondervan, 1983, pp. 16-17). The Bible itself has a fascinating and inspirational history, and any book that shows how we got our Bible cannot help but increase our appreciation for the Word of God.
In this category, Ewert’s book is an excellent buy. It includes a broad range of topics: the languages of the Bible; the development of writing; how the biblical books were written, transmitted and collected; the process of canonization and the extracanonical books such as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha; the text of the Hebrew Bible; ancient versions of the Old Testament; the text of the Greek New Testament; early Eastern and Western version of the New Testament; and the development of the English Bible.
Although packed with information, Ewert’s book is not difficult to read. Also, at the end of each chapter is a suggested reading list for those who want to study further in that particular area. Only F.F. Bruce’s The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible is comparable in the range of topics covered. Other useful books in this general category include The Text of the New Testament (Bruce Metzger) and How We Got Our Bible (ed. Philip W. Comfort).
Once you have a study Bible, a Bible dictionary, an atlas and a topical help, a one-volume commentary and a book on how we got the Bible, you already have the most important tools for Bible study and the basis for a good Bible library. From this basis, the best way to continue building your library is to add books that fill in the background to the Bible stories. John Drane’s An Introduction to the Bible is outstanding in this field. Thorough, informative and interesting, it is also superbly illustrated and will help make Bible study more exciting.
For straight historical background, we recommend either Leon Wood’s A Survey of Israel’s History or John Bright’s A History of Israel and The Kingdom of God. John Bright’s book is more scholarly, but you might find Leon Wood’s book easier to read. Both are excellent (although they disagree on some points). R.K. Harrison’s Introduction to the Old Testament and Brevard Childs’ Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture discuss questions such as date and authorship of each of the Old Testament books.
As you expand your library, you may consider the following books: Discovering the Bible (ed. Tim Dowley) is a beautifully illustrated look at Scripture from an archaeological viewpoint. Eduard Lohse’s New Testament Environment gives a detailed study of the cultural, religious, intellectual and political movements within Judaism and within the Hellenistic-Roman society at the time of the New Testament. The Literary Guide to the Bible (eds. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode) contains many excellent articles showing how individual books of the Bible develop their particular themes. Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Theology collates what the New Testament writers taught concerning the major biblical doctrines.
Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall) contains nearly 200 in-depth conservative articles reflecting recent scholarship on gospel studies. Other excellent works in this series are Dictionary of Paul and His Letters and Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments.
One method of Bible study is to read a chapter or section of one of these books, looking up the scripture references as you come to them. You will then be reading the biblical passages in the light of their overall context and background. Books such as The Literary Guide to the Bible or Introduction to the Bible can provide good preliminary reading before an in-depth study of a particular book in the Bible. Books such as New Testament Theology are extremely helpful in topical Bible studies.
Commentaries expound the meaning of individual verses and passages in the order they appear. They are less primary tools for doing original Bible study than they are the results of somebody else’s Bible study. Nevertheless, a one-volume commentary can be a quick and handy reference work.
If you want a conservative one-volume commentary, we recommend The Eerdmans Bible Commentary (formerly called The New Bible Commentary). Other good commentaries include The 21st Century Bible Commentary and The New Jerome Bible Commentary, both of which will give you current critical interpretation. The latter commentary, written by Catholic scholars, is in large part in agreement with Protestant scholarship.
For those who want more exhaustive commentaries, we recommend slowly building your library by buying commentaries on individual books. Decide which book you want to study in depth. Then look at all the available commentaries on that book and choose the one that best suits your needs. Buying a commentary set outright might save you some time, but most commentary sets are of uneven quality. Building a Bible study library is something you do over a lifetime. If you buy each commentary individually, you will probably appreciate them more. You will also find out what styles of commentary work for you.
One excellent way to use a commentary is to read it after you have done your own Bible study on the relevant passage. You will then be in a better position to appreciate and evaluate what the commentary has to say. If the commentary gives a number of possible interpretations, for example, your own study may help you decide which one is most likely to be right.
For more advanced students
None of the books we have discussed so far require an acquaintance with the original languages of the Bible. Some students, however, will wish to delve behind the English translations and do word studies in Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek. There are some excellent Bible helps in this field.
The starting point for this type of study is an interlinear Bible. This gives the Hebrew or Greek text with a literal translation of each word underneath. Often there is a translation of the whole text in a column at the side. Some interlinear Bibles include, above the Hebrew and Greek words, the numbers that correspond to those words in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible or the NIV numbering system.
The Englishman’s Hebrew-Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament and The Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament list all the verses where a given Hebrew word occurs in the Old Testament, or a Greek word occurs in the New Testament. Both concordances are arranged in order of Strong’s numbering system, making them usable by students without any knowledge of Hebrew or Greek. These concordances also show how the particular word was translated in the KJV in every occurrence. Similar works using the NIV are The Hebrew-English Concordance to the Old Testament and The Greek-English Concordance to the New Testament.
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon and Gesenius’s Hebrew-English Lexicon give the various usages of Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible. Some editions of these works are numerically coded to Strong’s. There are more scholarly lexicons than these, but they are harder to use and understand.
When used in conjunction with an interlinear Bible, lexicons and original-language concordances can be an enjoyable way of doing word studies in Greek and Hebrew without needing to know much about those languages. (It is helpful to know the alphabets, but even this is not absolutely necessary if a numbering system is used throughout.)
Another approach is to buy The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. Colin Brown). This is a three-volume set, with a fourth volume devoted to various indexes. The dictionary is topically arranged, but shows how each New Testament Greek word was used in classical Greek literature, in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament and in the New Testament itself. No knowledge of Greek is required to use this set. The discussions of each topic are thorough and scholarly. There is no Old Testament equivalent of this work, but the 2-volume Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (eds. R. Laird Harris, Gleason J. Archer, Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke) is helpful.
So many books have been written concerning the Bible! You may wish to read and perhaps acquire further books in any one of a number of areas: archaeology, social customs, poetry, history, geography, surrounding cultures, religious practices among different groups — the list is almost endless.
You need very few books to enjoy a lifetime of profitable Bible study. Conversely, no matter how many books you own, you will never know everything about the Bible. What you decide to buy is up to you. Bible study, in the end, is a personal pursuit. You should do what best works for you in building your relationship with God.