Choosing a Study Bible

Among the most important choices a Christian makes is selecting a Bible translation for daily study. You may be saying, “I thought they were all the same.” No, and that is why you need more information!

To discuss different translations, you will need a key to their abbreviations. The year shown is the year of first publication as a full Bible.

ESV                      English Standard Version (2001)

NET                      New English Translation (1996)

HCSB                   Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004)

NIV                       New International Version (1978)

NASB                   New American Standard Bible (1963)

KJV                      King James Version (1611)

The Crux: What Type of Bible?

The English Bible is found in two forms: translations and paraphrases. First, we will describe paraphrases and then translations.

Bible Paraphrases

One dictionary says a paraphrase is: “A restatement of a text or passage in another form or other words, often to clarify meaning.”[1] Clarity is certainly the main goal of a Bible paraphrase, but you have to understand the original text correctly in order to paraphrase it. If everyone saw the same original meaning in a Bible verse, there would be no need for commentaries; there are tens of thousands of them!

We usually want things that are easier to understand, so what is the limitation of a paraphrase? New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace says, “If the translator’s interpretation is correct, it can only clarify the meaning of the text; if it is incorrect, then it can only clarify the interpretation of the translator!”[2] If the translator’s interpretation is correct, you get a paraphrase of God’s Word; if not, you get a paraphrase of the translator’s word.

One of the most popular paraphrases is The Living Bible. It first appeared in 1971 as the literary effort of Kenneth N. Taylor. Taylor initially wrote The Living Bible for his children, never intending it for serious study, yet it achieved great popularity.[3]

Another widely distributed paraphrase is The Message, the effort of Eugene H. Peterson. The full Bible as paraphrased by The Message became available in 2002. One notable scholar considers The Message even freer than a paraphrase, calling it devotional literature.

So, the two most popular paraphrases are each the product of one man. Further, we note that some question exists as to when clarification becomes invention. Compare these paraphrases with a translation for one of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount:

PARAPHRASE: Matthew 5:3 (The Message) “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

PARAPHRASE: Matthew 5:3 (The Living Bible) “Humble men are very fortunate,” he told them, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them.”

TRANSLATION: Matthew 5:3 (English Standard Version) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You will notice immediately that the two paraphrases are quite different. If you had not been told they were paraphrasing the same verse, you might have guessed otherwise. Paraphrases have their uses, but serious Bible study is not one of them. You need an accurate Bible translation.

Bible Translations

Here is a reasonable definition: “Translation is the interpreting of the meaning of a text and the subsequent production of an equivalent text, likewise called a ‘translation,’ that communicates the same message in another language.”[4] In our case the Bible was recorded in Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament), with a few chapters in Aramaic (Old Testament). Producing an equivalent text in English is what results in our Bible translations.

We all want a Bible that shows fidelity to the original text and clarity in our language because we want to know exactly what God has revealed to us. So, what is the challenge? Wallace says, “Idioms and colloquialisms in a language need to be paraphrased to make sense in another language.”[5] In addition, some translations attempt to distinguish themselves by incorporating a measure of paraphrase to enhance readability. The degree to which this paraphrasing is done leads to some debate.

The most famous translation of all time is the King James Version of 1611, a product of scholars from Oxford and Cambridge. Due to the passage of time and the discovery of thousands of additional biblical manuscripts, the need arose for fresh translations; all languages change over time. The English Standard Version (2001) is a successor in the tradition of the King James Version. Other notable translations include the NET Bible (1996), the New International Version (1978 and 2011), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004), and the New American Standard Bible (1963). We have already mentioned the New Living Translation (1996).

Because of their greater fidelity to the biblical text, translations are the right tool for a Bible student or growing Christian.

Notes to the Max

Contemporary study Bibles have an amazing amount of information in the notes at the bottom of each page. They usually contain maps, diagrams and charts at various locations.

Since some translations (ESV, KJV or NASB) emphasize transparency to the original text, they do not put much interpretation directly into the translation. For such translations the notes are a great help in bridging the historical and cultural gap between us and biblical times. For example, John 18:28a (ESV) says, “Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters.” The ESV Study Bible has a long note to tell you all about the Roman governor’s quarters at Herod’s old palace or a possible alternate location.

By contrast, the NIV says, “Then the Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor” (John 18:28a, NIV 2011, emphasis added). Note the words in italics. The word “Roman” is not in the Greek New Testament here, but it appears in the NIV 2011 translation as a clarification. Similarly, “they” (ESV) has been changed to “the Jewish leaders” (NIV 2011) to make certain you know who took Jesus to the palace, but the words “Jewish leaders” do not occur here in the Greek text. The NIV Study Bible — available at this writing only for NIV 1984 — also has a long note to tell you what is going on in this scene.

In relation to resource materials provided along with the translation, the ESV and NIV study Bibles differ in two significant ways. First, the NIV Study Bible has a concordance about double the size of the one in the ESV Study Bible. On the other hand, the NIV 1984 needs a much bigger concordance since it uses a much greater variety of words to translate individual Greek or Hebrew words, and that makes concordance research more complicated. [Note: A concordance is an alphabetic list of words used in a specific translation matched to a list of the Bible verses where that word occurs. A concordance is essential for doing word studies without special Bible software.]

The second significant difference is that the ESV Study Bible contains a large number of articles (e.g. “The Character of God” and “Marriage and Sexual Morality”) dealing with many subjects at greater length than notes allow. These materials are not replicated in the NIV Study Bible.

For those intrepid few who cannot get enough about the linguistic matters that underlie our English translations, the NET Bible First Edition is a must-have. This Bible has a unique set of Translators’ Notes that justify the translation. These Notes can be technical in relation to original languages, but they are a great help to understanding the original meaning and options for translation. The NET Bible has fine maps but few charts and diagrams and no concordance. Still, it is unique. The NET Bible and all its Notes may be downloaded free at www.Bible.org, and I recommend you do that.

Recommended Study Bibles

I recommend the following study Bibles according to your need:

ESV Study Bible published by Crossway Bibles (2008)

The ESV emphasizes transparency to the original text over clarity in English. The ESV Study Bible has outstanding notes, maps, and concordance along with good articles. It gets my vote as the best general-purpose study Bible available in May 2011.

The NIV Study Bible, Updated Edition published by Zondervan (2008)

The NIV 1984 emphasizes clarity in English, so it has more interpretation in its translated text than either the ESV or the NET Bible. The NIV Study Bible has outstanding notes and maps along with a sizable concordance. It is also a sound choice for a general-purpose study Bible. It seems reasonable to expect that a revision using the NIV 2011 text will be available sometime in 2011. That will be an upgrade!

NET Bible, First Edition [with over 60,932 Notes] published by Biblical Studies Press (2005)

The NET Bible takes a middle position between the NIV and ESV on the balance between transparency to the original text and clarity in English. The NET Bible is highly recommended for those interested in the Translators’ Notes. It also has unique maps based on earth-satellite imaging.  Available at www.Bible.org .

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] “paraphrase.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 22 Nov. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/paraphrase>.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, “Choosing a Bible Translation,” Bible Study Magazine (Nov. & Dec., 2008) 24.

[3] More recently the New Living Translation has replaced the earlier paraphrase with a widely accepted translation done by a team of scholars.

[4] “Translation.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Nov 2008, 09:08 UTC. 23 Nov 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Translation&oldid=252537344>.

[5] Wallace, “Choosing a Bible Translation,” 23.