Wayne Jackson has written, “It is the epitome of folly to ignore the labors of countless Bible scholars across the centuries who have made available, by means of the printed page, the results of their research. One of the wonders of the human mind is that it can build upon the knowledge of previous generations, and this is no less true of sacred knowledge. Every Christian needs to build a personal religious library of good tools that will enhance his understanding of the scriptures and his ability to convey that information to others” (Jackson, A Study Guide to Greater Bible Knowledge, p. 83).
One could spend a fortune on books, software, and other tools. “Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). I am not suggesting that every Bible student should spend a great deal of money to acquire a large library of books, software, and other tools. However, a few basic tools would be helpful to Bible study. In this article, I will make a few suggestions.
8. A Good Translation
There are two basic approaches to translation. (1) One approach is referred to as Formal Equivalence (aka Modified Literal). This approach “attempts to translate the words and nuances of the original as literal as possible provided that clarity is conveyed in English” (Jackson, The Bible Translation Controversy, p. 5). (2) The other approach is referred to as Dynamic Equivalence (aka Functional Equivalence). This approach “attempts to convey the meaning of the text in free idiomatic English without much regard for the exact wording of the original” (ibid).
One’s primary Bible for reading and studying should be a Formal Equivalent translation. Some major translations which used this philosophy include: the King James Version; the American Standard Bible; the New American Standard Bible; the New King James Version; the English Standard Version. I am fond of the New King James Version.
Dynamic Equivalent translations may have value. However, the translator “becomes more of a commentator than a translator” (ibid). Some translations which used this philosophy include: the New International Version; the New Living Translation; the Contemporary English Version.
Readability is also important. The King James Version is written on a 12th grade reading level. The American Standard’s reading level, I could not find, but it also is probably on a similar reading level. The New American Standard Bible is written on an 11th grade reading level. The New King James version is written on a 9th grade reading level. The English Standard Version is written on an 8th grade reading level. For comparison, the New International Version is on a 7.8 grade reading level (Source: Bible Comparison Guide by Zondervan).
There is also the matter of textual family. Some translations use the Byzantine Family of manuscripts. These include the King James Version and the New King James Version. Others use the Alexandrian Family of manuscripts, or an Eclectic text. These include the American Standard Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version. There are textual differences between these two families of manuscripts. However, I do not think that these differences are nearly as important as translation philosophy. The preface to the New Open Bible reads, “Bible readers may be assured that most important differences in the English New Testaments of today are due, not to manuscript divergence, but to the way in which the translators viewed the task of translation.” Geisler and Nix have concluded, “Actually, the variant readings which significantly affect the sense of a passage are less than ten percent of the New Testament, and none of these affect any basic doctrine of the Christian faith” (Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to The Bible, p. 489). Again, they write, “Westcott and Hort estimated that only one-eighth of all the variants had any weight, as most of them are merely mechanical matters such as spelling or style. Of the whole, then, only about one-sixtieth rise above ‘trivialities,’ or can in any sense be called ‘substantial’ variations. Mathematically that would compute to a text that is 99.33 percent pure whether the critic adopts the Textus Receptus, Majority Text, Nestle-Aland Text, or some eclectic text of the New Testament” (ibid, p. 474). Neil Lightfoot concluded, ” Textual variants are of different types and degrees of importance. Most variants are obvious slips made by a scribe and present no problem. …Some represent substantial variation, but in this number no unique Biblical teaching or divine command is involved” (Lightfoot, How We Got The Bible, p. 96). Roderick Ross has stated “The vast majority of the manuscripts of New Testament agree with one another almost letter for letter. It has been estimated that these comprise 95-96% of the manuscripts extant” ( ed. Terry Hightower, A Handbook On Bible Translations, p.380).
J.W. McGarvey gave this illustration about the transmission of scripture and the manuscript evidence. “The case is like that of a certain will. A gentleman left a large estate entailed to his descendants of the third generation, and it was not to be divided until a majority of them should be of age. During the interval many copies of the will were circulated among parties interested, many of these being copies of copies. In the meantime, the office of record in which the original was filed was burned with all its contents. When the time for division drew near, a prying attorney gave out among the heirs the report that no two existing copies of the will were alike. This alarmed them all and set them busily at work to ascertain the truth of the report. On comparing copy with copy, they found the report true, but on close inspection it was discovered that the differences consisted in errors of spelling or grammatical construction; some mistakes in figures corrected by the written numbers; and some other differences not easily accounted for; but that in none of the copies did these mistakes affect the rights of the heirs. In the essential matters for which the will was written the representations of all the copies were precisely the same. The result was that they divided the estate with perfect satisfaction to all, and they were more certain that they had executed the will of their grandfather than if the original copy had been alone preserved; for it might have been tampered with in the interest of a single heir, but the copies, defective though they were, could not have been. So, with the New Testament.” (J.W. McGarvey, Evidences of Christianity, part 1, page 17).
9. An exhaustive concordance
A concordance is a verbal index to the Bible. Many Bibles contain a brief concordance in the back, after the New Testament. However, An English language exhaustive concordance lists every word which appears in an English Bible in alphabetical order. Strong’s and Young’s are based on the King James Version.
I recommend the Strong’s Concordance. It has assigned a number to each word in the original language. These words can be looked up in the Hebrew dictionary and the Greek dictionary in the back of the book. Other tools have also adopted this same numbering system (e.g. Thayer’s Greek – English Lexicon; Vine’s Expository Dictionary, etc.). If I were going to have only one book in addition to the Bible, this would be it.
10. A topical Bible
A topical Bible might be thought of as a topical concordance. Nave’s Topical Bible is good. It contains Biblical references to over 20,000 topics.
11. An atlas
An atlas is a book of maps. Some Bibles contain good maps within them. A good atlas will contain more. Baker’s Bible Atlas is good. It provides much information on places mentioned in the Bible.
It is valuable to be able to look up the meaning of words, the words of the original languages. If you have little or no familiarity of the original languages, I recommend Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon can also be used without any familiarity with Greek, if you also have a Strong’s concordance. It is coded with Strong’s numbers.
Caution: Using an English dictionary, such as Webster, to look up the meaning of Biblical words can be a problem. For instance, if you look up “baptism” in an English dictionary, it may give the following definition, or something near to it: “The application of water to a person, as a sacrament or religious ceremony by which he is initiated into the visible church of Christ. This is usually performed by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, the act varying with the tenet of various churches.” The dictionary is not defining the meaning of the original word or telling you how the Bible uses the word. Instead, the dictionary is telling you how the word is used today. The Bible sometimes uses words very differently than how they are used today. Moreover, behind the English word in your English Bible is an original word (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic). It is the original word and its usage in the Bible, and especially the context of the passage that is important.
13. Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias
These are helpful to researching people, places, and things. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is helpful, but somewhat pricey. More affordable is The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary.
14. Survey of books of the Bible
There are books which help survey the books of the Bible. Here are three helpful books: Halley’s Bible Handbook by H.H. Halley; A Survey of Old Testament Introduction by Gleason Archer Jr.; New Testament Introduction by Donald Guthrie.
15. Commentaries/Study Bibles
Wayne Jackson warns, “It is exceedingly difficult to find Bible commentaries that do not reflect sectarian bias. In using a commentary, therefore, it is quite important to know the religious persuasion of the author. In the majority of commentaries on the religious market today, information concerning God’s plan of salvation, the church, New Testament worship, etc., will be erroneous. If this fact is recognized, many of these works can be used to great profit in others areas of biblical knowledge” (A Study Guide to Greater Bible Knowledge, p. 90).
Here are some recommendations: Gospel Advocate Commentaries; Coffman’s Commentaries; Gospel Light Commentaries; B.W. Johnson commentary; Truth for Today’s Commentaries; J.W. McGarvey Commentaries, especially his original commentary on Acts; Homer Hailey Commentaries; Roy Deaver’s commentary on Romans; R.L. Whiteside’s commentary on Romans; Ray Summers’ commentary on Revelation; Wayne Jackson Commentaries; Robert Taylor Jr. Commentaries; Tom Wacaster Commentaries; Denton lectureship books; Shertz lectureship books; Spiritual Sword lectureship books; Memphis School of Preaching lectureship books; Southwest School of Bible Studies lectureship books; Power lectureship books; Adam Clark commentaries; Barnes’ Notes.
Which study Bible contain helpful notes? The New Open Bible, and The English Standard Study Bible contain some helpful notes. The NIV Study Bible contains some helpful charts and notes, though I am not big on the NIV translation. Old favorites are the Thompson Chain Reference Bible, and the Dickson Study Bible. Remember these notes are the comments of uninspired men.
Note: This should not be viewed as a total endorsement of all that are written in these books, and study notes.
I am a dinosaur, when it comes to technology. Others could better write on this point.
However, there are many amazing tools available for your phone or computer. Our church website churchofchristyoungsport.org contains links to Vine’s Expository Dictionary and studylight.org which contains over 100 commentaries. This is free to access.
One should also consider downloading the Blue Letter Bible app. It contains concordances, Bible translations, lexicons, cross references and other study tools. It is free.
Logos Bible Software is an amazing digital library of information. There are different packages. Cost varies by package. It is expensive. It is worth investigating if you are a serious Bible student.