"What Bible Should I Read?"
Dr. Bill Creasy
Scroll down to read Dr. Creasy's in-depth recommendations for choosing the right Study Bible for you!
Catholic Study Bible, 3rd Edition
Oxford University Press
NIV Zondervan Study Bible
Zondervan (HarperCollins Christian Publishing)
Many people ask me what Bible they should read. Here is my answer, along with my reasoning behind it.
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) were originally written in Hebrew, with parts of Ezra and Daniel in Aramaic; the New Testament was written entirely in Greek. If you do not read Hebrew and Greek you will need an accurate, reliable translation of Scripture into English. And if you wish to study Scripture, you will need a reliable study Bible. Unlike a standard Bible that includes only the text of Scripture, a study Bible also includes an introduction to each book, notes, cross references, maps and much other supporting material. All study Bibles aim at helping you to understand the Bible better. Selecting a study Bible is a highly personal decision that is complicated by the many study Bibles available. To make an intelligent decision, one should keep in mind four criteria: 1) the textual basis for the translation, 2) the accuracy of the translation, 3) the quality of the English, and 4) the quality and purpose of the accompanying notes and supporting material.
The earliest manuscripts of the Old Testament are included among the Dead Sea scrolls discovered in 1948, and they date from c. 250 B.C. to A.D. 70. These manuscripts include two complete scrolls of Isaiah, a commentary on Habakkuk, and some collections of psalms; in addition, the Dead Sea scrolls have yielded over 400 manuscript fragments of Old Testament books. Before the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, the earliest Old Testament manuscripts were from the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D., with the vast majority originating much later. The most important collection of Hebrew manuscripts, apart from the Dead Sea scrolls, is in the Russian Public Library in St. Petersburg, which includes 1,582 items on parchment and 725 on paper; another collection in the same library includes about 1,200 fragments.
When we turn to the New Testament, we presently have over 5,800 manuscripts in Greek. The oldest is a fragment of the gospel according to John, dating from A.D. 125; the most important texts date from the fourth century A.D., with the vast majority ranging from the sixth through the sixteenth centuries.
Manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments have been collected and catalogued, and the most important of them have been edited so that they are available to scholars and other interested readers; there is also a major project underway to create a computer database of all the important biblical manuscripts.
The quality of any Bible translation depends heavily upon the quality of the Hebrew and Greek texts it is being translated from. Textual scholars have produced critical editions of both the Old and New Testaments for just this purpose. A critical edition is the scholarly world’s best attempt at reconstructing what the original biblical authors wrote, using the existing manuscripts. Two of these critical editions are very important:
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1997.
This is a critical edition of the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, principally those manuscripts dating from the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D. It is the text on which any translation of the Old Testament should be based, although every translation should also refer to the Dead Sea scrolls, as well as to other texts and manuscripts for specific readings.
Eberhard Nestle and Erwin Nestle (continued by Kurt Aland, et al.). Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012.
Commonly referred to as the “Nestle-Aland 28th edition,” this is the standard critical edition of the Greek New Testament. All New Testament translations should be based on this text.
Most modern translations are based on these two critical editions, but there are notable exceptions. The King James Version, first printed in 1611, bases its New Testament on the “Received Text,” or the Textus Receptus. The Textus Receptus is a version of the first Greek New Testament published in 1516 by the famous Dutch scholar, Erasmus. He had access to only about a half-dozen Greek manuscripts, yet his version of the Greek text became the standard for over 400 years. Likewise, all American Catholic Bibles until the New American Bible (1970) were translated from the Latin Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate was translated by St. Jerome at the request of Pope Damasus, beginning in A.D. 382. Jerome used only those few Hebrew, Greek and Latin manuscripts that were available to him. American Catholic Bibles prior to 1970 are thus translations of a translation, which itself is based on a very limited number of texts.
When selecting a Bible be sure to read the introductory material in the Bible’s “Preface.” This will tell you the textual basis for the translation you are about to buy. Make sure that it is translated from the critical editions noted above.
ACCURACY OF THE TRANSLATION
Bible translation is a highly developed science, as well as an art. Yet, translation methods differ legitimately among scholars, depending upon the purpose of the translation and the audience for whom it is intended. Modern Bible translation methods may be classified into three categories: 1) literal, 2) dynamic equivalency, and 3) paraphrase.
Bible translators who take a literal approach attempt to translate the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek word-for-word, including grammar and syntax, to the closest degree possible. The translators of the New American Standard Bible (1971) take this approach. The NASB lays out four goals for its translation: 1) to be true to the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; 2) to be grammatically correct; 3) to be understandable to the masses; and 4) to avoid “personalizing” the translation (that is, to avoid denominational or personal biases). It accomplishes these goals admirably. As a study text, the NASB is excellent, especially in the way it consistently translates verb tenses and in the way it italicizes English words that are not in the original languages, but that must be added to make the translation understandable in English.
For those without Hebrew or Greek, a literal translation captures the meaning of the original languages quite well, especially the nuances of grammar. Literal translations are often “wooden” or “stilted,” however, in their language and style. Although excellent for study purposes, they fall short—in my opinion—for devotional, liturgical or public reading.
Dynamic equivalency translation seeks to create in the reader an experience of the text similar to what a reader of the original language would have. In The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1969), Eugene Nida says that “translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style . . . but to reproduce the message one must make a good many grammatical and lexical adjustments” (p. 12). In Mark 2:1, for example, a dynamic equivalency translation would render the Greek phrase “in house” as “at home.” Likewise, dynamic equivalency would render a Hebrew idiom used by Paul in Colossians 3:12 (literally translated, “bowels of mercies”), as something like “tender compassion.” Although English has the words “bowels” and “mercies,” we don’t combine them to create the same meaning as the Hebrew idiom does.
Dynamic equivalency focuses on meaning more than on words. Most often, however, a fairly straightforward, literal translation captures the meaning of a text; but when it does not, dynamic equivalency probes beneath the surface of a word to its meaning as it is embodied in the word’s linguistic and cultural context. (How, for example, does one render “white as snow” in Numbers 12:10 in the language of a culture that has never seen snow?). Most modern Bibles are dynamic equivalency translations, and the New International Version (1985) and the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) are among the best.
Paraphrase is one giant leap beyond dynamic equivalency. Paraphrase simply summarizes a passage of Scripture, and then restates it in English. From a technical point of view, this is an unacceptable translation method, but it is useful for some purposes and audiences. The Living Bible (1971) is a paraphrase. Kenneth Taylor, who produced the text, says: “To paraphrase is to say something in different words than the author used. It is a restatement of an author’s thoughts, using different words than he did.” Taylor began work on The Living Bible when he realized that his own children couldn’t understand the King James Version that he had been reading to them. He began to explain the passages in ordinary, everyday English that they could understand. The Living Bible is thus intended for children or those who have difficulty understanding a more faithful rendering of the Bible. A paraphrase is excellent for young or unsophisticated readers; it is not adequate as a study Bible for adults.
QUALITY OF THE ENGLISH
A satisfactory translation of the Bible must be both accurate and clear. Accurate means that it is faithful to the original languages; clear means that a modern American reader should easily understand it. The two criteria are related, but they are not the same. In addition, the style and power of the English should be memorable and should engage the reader. This is the chief quality of the King James Version. It is, after all, written in Shakespeare’s English. The King James Version is a monument of English literature in its own right. When we think of Psalm 23 we think of it in KJV language: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want/ He maketh me to lie down in green pastures/ He leadeth me beside the still waters./ He restoreth my soul . . .”; and even today when we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray from the KJV, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . ..” No modern translation comes close to the majesty, dignity and reverence of the King James Version.
Hillair Belloc once said that the key to successful translation is not to ask, “How can I get this foreigner to talk English,” but “What would an Englishman [or American] have said to express the same?” J.R.R. Tolkein, who translated the book of Job for the original Jerusalem Bible (1966), added that an English translation of the Bible should not sound like a translation at all; it should sound like it was written in English to begin with. That is a tall order, and few Bible translations deliver on it. The King James Version comes closest. Among modern translations, the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) scores highest on this count: a dynamic equivalency translation, its English is elegant, and its style is superb.
QUALITY OF SUPPORTING MATERIAL
All study Bibles have supporting material, such as introductions, maps, notes, and so on. Some have extensive material. Since the Bible is a big book, spanning 2,000 years in a time and culture far removed from our own, comprehensive supporting material is essential to your study Bible.
This is an area where you should be careful. Although modern translations seldom include denominational or personal biases, supporting material does. Text is text, but supporting material by its very nature is interpretive. Supporting material is where one encounters “Protestant Bibles,” “Catholic Bibles,” “conservative Bibles,” “liberal Bibles,” and most everything else.
In selecting a study Bible, it is very important to find one whose supporting material fits your purpose. Conservative Protestant study Bibles include the New Scofield Reference Bible (with KJV, New KJV, NASB, and NIV texts), the Ryrie Study Bible (with KJV, New KJV, NASB, and NIV texts), the Thompson Chain Reference Bible (with KJV and New KJV texts), and the New International Version (NIV) Study Bible. Among conservative Bibles, the Scofield and Ryrie are the most conservative; the Thompson is in the middle; and the NIV is moderately conservative. Liberal Protestant Bibles include the New Oxford Annotated Bible (with the New Revised Standard Version text). There are two important Roman Catholic study Bibles: the New Jerusalem Bible (with its own translation) and the Catholic Study Bible (with the New American Bible text), both of which reflect up-to-date Roman Catholic scholarship and theology.
At minimum, all study Bibles should include: 1) an introduction and outline for each book of the Bible, 2) cross references, 3) textual and explanatory footnotes, 4) concordance, 5) full-color maps, and 6) an index. Any study Bible that lacks these basic tools falls short for the serious Bible student.
As I mentioned at the start, selecting a study Bible is a very personal decision, and you should give it much thought. To make your decision, you might follow four practical guidelines suggested by Oxford University Press, one of the oldest and most respected Bible publishers in the world.
1) Determine which translation is best for you. There are over a dozen Bible translations available today, each aiming for a different effect or audience. There is no single, perfect translation. If you want a translation that is traditional, dignified and of high literary quality, you’ll probably like the King James Version (KJV). If you want a literal, word-for-word translation as close as possible to the original Hebrew and Greek, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) will serve best. If you are looking for readability and a contemporary style, the New International Version (NIV) should be your choice. If you want a Bible that matches readings in the Roman Catholic liturgy, choose the New American Bible (NAB).
2) Decide how you want your study Bible to treat the idea of Scriptural interpretation. If you want a study Bible that holds a high view of the inerrancy of Scripture and is very literal in its interpretations, choose the New Scofield or the Ryrie. If you want a Bible that is traditional and theologically conservative, but that presents other points of view as well, choose the NIV Study Bible. If you want a Bible that reflects current Roman Catholic theology, choose the Catholic Study Bible.
3) Determine which study Bible is organized in a way that is easiest for you to use. Different study systems are designed to accomplish different things, and many people have several study Bibles for different purposes. No single study Bible can do everything. If you want a study system that helps you look things up (verses, incidents, teachings, and so on) the Thompson Chain Reference is the best. If you want to focus on the historical and cultural background of the Bible, the NIV Study Bible is the best. If you want a study Bible that stresses a deeper understanding of conservative Protestant theology and your growth as a Christian, the New Scofield or the Ryrie are very good.
4) Decide what style of Bible best suits your purposes. Bibles come in a remarkable variety of formats, sizes, colors, and prints. You probably want your study Bible to be a permanent addition to your library, but you also want to use it. (And I strongly encourage you to use it energetically: write in it, take notes, underline and draw diagrams. A good study Bible should wear out with use!). Consider investing in a leather Bible with relatively large print and ample margins for making notes. Be sure that it is printed on high quality paper, so that highlighter marks and ink don’t bleed through to the other side. Thumb indexes may help you find your way around the Bible if you are new to it, but they get in the way of making notes, and after a while you’ll find your way around the Bible unaided. Morocco leather is the highest quality binding (and also the most expensive), and it lies open nicely: it’s worth the extra money.
Your local Christian bookstore will gladly help you select a good study Bible. Most have a vast inventory of Bibles to look at, and they will order any Bible they do not have in stock.
Again, I want to stress that selecting a study Bible is a very personal decision. The Bible is, as St. Gregory the Great said, “a letter from God.” Read it with love; study it with commitment and passion. The study Bible you choose will shape your relationship with God in a profound way. Choosing the right one is a very important decision.
Personally, for Roman Catholics I recommend the Catholic Study Bible, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Nearly 2,000 pages long, the first 525 pages offer in-depth summaries of each book of Scripture, along with a discussion of important textual and critical issues. Notes for each book respect Catholic tradition and incorporate the most current, substantive scholarship. In addition, the Catholic Study Bible uses the New American Bible, Revised Edition translation, the same translation used for readings in the Liturgy of the Word during Mass. It is an excellent choice.
For Protestants, I recommend the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015). I chose the NIV Study Bible for several reasons. First, the dynamic equivalency translation produces a very readable text. Second, the NIV supporting material reflects traditional Protestant thinking, and it respects the integrity of the text. Third, the NIV Study Bible’s editors and publishers have produced an enormous amount of supplementary material, including: the 12-volume Expositor’s Bible Commentary, over 12,000 pages expanding and elaborating upon the study Bible’s essays, notes and outlines; the NIV Exhaustive Concordance, a complete concordance of the NIV text, cross referenced to the original Hebrew and Greek words; a 4-volume Dictionary of New Testament Theology that includes essays on important New Testament words; and The NIV Hebrew-English Interlinear Old Testament, which gives the entire Hebrew text of the Old Testament with a literal translation of each word directly below the Hebrew word, along with the NIV text in a parallel column.
Unfortunately, the NIV lacks the Deuterocanonical books (the Apocrypha), those books not included in the Protestant canon:
- Books and Additions to Esther and Daniel that are in Roman Catholic, Greek and Slavonic Bibles
o Additions to Esther
o Wisdom of Solomon
o Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach
o The Letter of Jeremiah (= Baruch, chapter 6)
o Additions to Daniel
§ Prayer of Azariah and the Son of the Three Jews
§ Bel and the Dragon
o 1 Maccabees
o 2 Maccabees
- Books in Greek and Slavonic Bibles, not in the Roman Catholic Canon
o 1 Esdras (2 Esdras in Slavonic = 3 Esdras in Appendix to the Latin Vulgate)
o Prayer of Manasseh (in Appendix to the Latin Vulgate)
o Psalm 151 (following Psalm 150 in the Greek Septuagint)
o 3 Maccabees
- Books in Slavonic Bibles and in Appendix to the Latin Vulgate
o 2 Esdras (= 3 Esdras in Slavonic Bibles and 4 Esdras in the Vulgate Appendix
- Books in Appendix to the Greek Septuagint Bible
o 4 Maccabees
If you choose the NIV, for the Deuterocanonical books I recommend The Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).