my top 3 study Bibles (and so should you)

Posted by PeteEnns on December 30, 2015 in book notes and reviews 34 Comments

JSPNot all will agree with my top 3 (duh), but then again not all readers of the Bible are at the same place and looking for the same things.

Apart from that, this list is objectively accurate and if you can’t see that it’s not my fault.

In no particular order, here they are:

HCSB and NISB include the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books and use the NRSV as their text. The JSB does not include these books and is based on the Jewish Publication Society’s translation, Tanakh.

So what do I like about these study Bibles?HCSB

  • Personally, I like the NRSV. I think it is a combination of being the least idiosyncratic and most scholarly translation. There I said it. It also lends a freshness to those accustomed to other translations, as does the Tanach translation (although there I am not always sure why they did what they did, but that’s another subject).
  • All three include excellent, informative, scholarly essays on a wide variety of topics. For me, the best of the three is JSB. It’s like a seminary/intro-level grad school education (and I’ll throw in here the essays in the The Jewish Annotated New Testament). I feel like I’m part of a bigger conversation in my reading of the Bible rather than being insulated from one.
  • I rarely feel that the essays and study notes are trying to sell me snake oil. There are exceptions here and there, but on the whole I feel I am getting reliable, balanced, and academically up-to-date information rather than being driven to accept a final answer to difficult problems.
  • James Kugel once relayed to his students, “Commentaries are like traffic cops. They’re never there when you need them.” I feel the same way about many study Bibles out there, namely those produced with a conservative readership in mind. Again, with some exceptions, the notes in these study Bibles are insightful, yield information that goes far beyond stating the obvious, and rarely have qualms about noting where there are contradictions and/or historical problems in the Bible. (NISB also has frequent lengthy “special notes” that deal quite squarely with things like historical issues and moral challenges.)

NISBI don’t have a favorite of these three. I’ve been using NISB for a few years in class, but I will always take a look at the notes in JPS and HCSB to see what they have to add.

Anyway, I wrote this post in part to answer a common question I get: “I don’t have a degree in Bible, but I want to be able to track with things I see online or read books to help me understand more. How can I get started?”

My answer is, “Read a good study Bible along with the notes.” So these three are what I consider to be “good study Bibles.”

[Please be patient as your comment is in moderation. Comments are normally posted within 6 hours but may take as long as 24—longer if you’re annoying.]



  • Mike Rogers

    Three excellent choices and I also concur with the “Jewish Annotated NT”.

  • Paul A.

    I just got the CEB Study Bible to start working through in 2016. Just perusing the essays and notes, it also seems to be a top-notch production.

  • David Elkins

    Excellent! Now, tell us your favorite commentaries, either commentaries of the whole OT and NT or individual books! :) But seriously, what commentaries do you recommend?

    • Chris

      I would love to know the answer to this one as well! Both one volume and sets would be great. I often wonder if Pete thinks of the NIC NT/OT sets are too conservative (or whatever phrase is appropriate). I assume WBC would be more acceptable in this blogosphere, but I’ve heard some of the volumes are incredible weak (though some incredibly strong).
      I’m never sure where to draw the line. I wonder if Pete ever finds commentators handling of the text irreverent (from the ‘liberal’ side I mean), I know the conservative guys/gals have there issues, but does the same hold for the scholars mentioned above, though moving in the opposite direction?

      • Pete E.

        I honestly do not have a favorite series. I own a lot of the AB series, Interpretation, some NICOT/NICNT, Word. All series are uneven.

        Define “irreverent.” In some respects, I find fundy/evang. commentaries irreverent.

        • Chris

          I agree on irreverent, poor wording. I do assume fundies tend to abuse reasonableness/fairness in a screwed up attempt to guard reverence though (going overboard on inspiration for example).

          I’m wondering if you perceive the same happening on the other end though, not giving the text due consideration because of miracles or unlikely events from a normal/natural perspective. If so, do you consider them equally damaging/problematic?

  • Stephen

    No love for the Jewish Annotated New Testament? I’m assigning that for Intro to NT in the Spring. [Don’t you love it when people expect you to have written what they would have written?]

    While I hear your points about the NRSV, what do you think of the following angle for thinking about that translation? My main problem with the NRSV pedagogically is that it gender-neutralizes far too often, thus obscuring, for example, the gendered (and often patriarchalist/misogynistic) contours of biblical writings. And for classes about biblical writings that have more critical-historical focuses, this is a problem. But there is not an easy solution since almost all (or all?) standard academic translations and study Bibles do this. I’ve thought about assigning the Oxford Press ESV (includes the Apocrypha, but retains the Crossway ESV translation and translation notes), but as you know, this exchanges one kind of ideologically curating for another that has a different set of problems…plus of the OUP ESV lacks notes.

  • gingoro

    Thanks Pete, useful information. When I order some of these I will need to order hard copy. I have the ESV Study Bible for my kindle but the facilities and human factors are so bad that I never use the notes. DaveW

  • JD Reynolds

    I just recently purchased the Oxford Annotated Study Bible w/NRSV and own a copy of the CEB Study Bible. Where would these fall? 4 or 5? 20 and 58? Viable alternates?

    Side note: I’ve heard it said that the NRSV and the CEB are “responsible translations,” as if the others are playing fast and loose with interpretation. Is that a valid observation?

  • Carter McNeese

    What about the Oxford Annotated? I got it for class over ten years ago, and have used it for every class since, including seminary. However, it seems that it is falling out of favor? And that NISB and HCSB are gaining? Is there a reason that Oxford is not as popular anymore? Or was my perception of its popularity merely a fluke of location…

  • Pete E.

    Folks, to answer some questions: (1) I like the Oxford ASB. I think the notes are as extensive, but I like the clean look. I actually thought of adding a 4th but I am deeply committed to trinitarian posts. (2) To my shame and embarrassment, I have never used the CEBSB. Does this make me a bad person? (3) I linked to the JANT but dod not mention it because I am going for full Christian Bibles in this post. But since some of you mentioned it—and this is my point of view, of course—I like it a lot, have used it in class, likely will again, and I consult it regularly. But . . . do any of you detect something of a “herein we show that Jesus and Paul have been misunderstood by Christians, and they were in fact nothing out of the ordinary in 1st c. Palestine” kind of vibe?

  • Mark K

    My view of Bible reading changed when I switched from NASB and NIV to the NRSV. The snake oil quote above comes to mind. I also really love the Jewish Study Bible. Commentators seem unafraid to voice their thoughts instead of having an unspoken agenda of reinforcing some gatekeeper mentality. It was in reading Edward L. Greenstein’s commentary on Job that I came to truly appreciate that book (and find a new author!). Job is now one of my go-to books for understanding and explaining the faith.

    • Pete E.

      Yes, Greenstein’s notes on Job are awesome. See his notes on 42:1-6. I was like, whoa.

      • Mark K

        So I read Greenstein on 42:1-6. He knocked my paradigm sideways and one street over. I’m just recovering some equanimity. Good stuff!

  • jjuulie

    I would appreciate a reference to a good children’s study Bible, aimed at the Middle School age child. In our congregation, we have a number of excessively bright, highly committed children and the whole “Skateboarder’s Bible” and “Fashion Bible” thing is just plain awful. We found one decent one that is acceptable for 4th-5th graders (Sparks Bible, from Augsburg), but really not as challenging as we’d like. I like your focus on the Jewish angle, too. We are a Christian congregation (evangelical/progressive -ish) but I’m trying to give my 3-5 graders a good grounding in the Old Testament, including a strong Jewish point of view. I have a great Jewish friend (no really, I do!) who has helped me a lot, but a great children’s bible would be a terrific added resource. And I’m going to spend my Christmas cash on your recommendation of the JSB. Thanks for any help you could give.

  • AlanCK

    I bought the HarperCollins Study Bible when it came out in 1993 and it is still the Bible I use at home (the binding has seen better days to say the least). It is excellent, but interested buyers need to be aware of its eclectic nature. Each scholar has his or her own set of notes for the respective books they annotate that emerge from their particular methods and theories (which vary and sometimes vary considerably). It is this “eclectic-ness” that is both the great attraction and the great limitation of the HCSB.

  • Suzanne

    Pete: since I am a newly single, stressed out, “older” mother of a 14 year old, who lost a 30 year marriage, all forms of stability, the ability to pay bills on time (or at all), who works full-time and then some, whose “Christian Faith and Worldview” has been shaken to the teeth, and who is exhausted but also admittedly lazy, could you just do me a favor and pick one for me? Thanks.

    • Pete E.

      My pleasure, Suzanne. I use NISB in my classes, so let me recommend that one.

  • Rea

    For those of us who can’t really afford a new study Bible right now (although I’ve added NISB to my Amazon wish list), what translations, of those available on free sources like YouVersion, would be closest to the NRSV? I’ve been reading the NIV since way back when it was the newcomer and I’d like to branch out a bit.

  • Gary

    Um… I don’t really ready or study the Bible anymore…

  • Brad

    Would you use one of the (better) evangelical Study Bibles (ESVSB? NIVSB?) alongside these, or are they dismissed all together? While I agree with “snake oil”, every tradition brings its own agendas to the text.

    • Pete E.

      True, but I feel there is a big difference between, say, gender inclusive language on the one hand and notes that seem interested in propagating historicity or harmonizations.

      • Brad

        Fair enough. I guess I’m asking if these things disqualify evangelical SB’s from “a place at the table”? Since each perspective has its biases (sure, some worse than others), it seems wise to be open multiple perspectives.

        • Pete E.

          I don;t think there is one answer to that questions. Depends on the reader and what table he/she is sitting at. For me, having used the NIVSB for about 25 years, I’m not losing anything there that I’m not getting better in terms of notes in the others I mention.

  • Jim Moore

    I’ve consumed as much snake oil as the next Southern Baptist and I’ve got the shelf of study bibles to prove it. Eventually I just gave up on the concept altogether and focused on trying to really read the Books themselves. BUT the truth is we’re all patristic and look for help in interpretation. If you aren’t reading a scholar’s point of view you’re hearing your pastor’s or interpreting everything through the lens of your own experience and culture which is just another sort of patristicism. (The burdens of the postmodern mind I suppose.)

    So I take your recommendation at face value but I’m curious if there are study bibles which seek to incorporate the thoughts and interpretations of the Church Fathers (and Mothers)?

    • Stuart Blessman

      BUT the truth is we’re all patristic and look for help in interpretation. It’s also the matter of endlessly reading a closed book in a closed loop. Like chewing the cud. Nothing is going to change until something new come along. And the idea that the Bible is endlessly rereadable and there is always something new to discover doesn’t hold much water to me; people just need to pay better attention the first few times, lol.

  • Stuart Blessman

    I threw away all my Bibles last year, along with almost all of my theology books. Realized I don’t believe any more in the god they were talking about, as they were mostly Reformed or fundamentalist or charismatic study bibles and books. But the one I did keep was that NRSV Study Bible, which I got in an Intro to the NT class taught by Calvin Roetzel, who I was a young idiot fool for not listening to better years ago. Regrets.

    • Pete E.

      I read his Paul book before I went to seminar and I remember it delightfully rocking my world.

    • Bill Garrison

      Hope you are kidding. No book should ever be thrown away. Donate them if you don’t want them.

      • Stuart Blessman

        Sold them to half price books, effectively throwing them out. But a few did make it into the trash that were missing pages or covers or whatever.

        And a book can absolutely be thrown away. They aren’t precious in the least. That thinking is largely a holdover before the mass publication we have today.

  • Stuart Blessman

    Are there any decent Bibles out there that are arranged chronologically? And I don’t mean by how we normally read chronologically, events in sequence, but by when things were written down.

    • Pete E.

      Didn’t Borg do that? Problem is, dat of writing is tough to settle on.

  • Chris

    Have you seen the New Intr. 1 volume commentary? If so, which would you recommend (NISB or NICm)? I’m digital now, have all the translations already…

  • Jon Zinnel

    Just curious, what do you think about The New Oxford Annotated Bible? How do you think it stands up to your three recommendations?