Let’s face it, understanding the Bible isn’t always easy. It’s hard for 21st-century people to understand all the historical and contextual background—and then apply to modern life.  Study Bibles provide readers the tools they need to make the Bible immediately easier to observe, interpret, and apply.

Jeffrey and I teamed up to assess many of the study Bibles that are available. As time goes on, we’ll be adding more Bibles to this post to give you a broader understanding of the options available and their strengths, so you can find the best study Bible for you.

Top study Bibles: 10+ reviewed and compared

A few notes on these study Bible reviews:

  • The length of some of these entries is due to the excess or lack of explanatory information online and is in no way intended to reflect our bias. (We show our bias in the “Used by” section.)
  • I (Jayson) am a pastor and 15-year Christian-retail guy with a lot of experience with helping people find their ideal study Bibles. Jeffrey is a self-proclaimed “homeschool Bible nerd.” The two of us have fairly middle-of-the-road theological perspectives.
  • OverviewBible is affiliated with Amazon.com. That means if you should choose to pick up one of these Bibles there, we’ll get a modest kickback—maybe even enough for the next pot of coffee!

You’ll notice as we get started with each review, we include some call-out information to provide some quick intel and help you compare each study Bible. Here’s a quick breakdown of the call-out information:

  • Published: This gives the year the Bible was published. Some Bibles have had multiple revisions and the date reflects the last public revision. Some (like the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible) have not been revised as much as amended. In this case, we went with the original publishing dates.
  • Publisher: This is simply the publishing company responsible for the latest iteration. For Bibles like NIV version of the The Life Application Study Bible, the publishing is split between Tyndale and Zondervan (who owns the rights to the NIV). We have opted to go with the publisher of the study materials themselves.
  • Translations: This is a list of the Bible translations the study Bible is available in.
  • Format: This explains how the Bible is laid out. If it’s “single column,” the Scripture will run from one side of the page to the other. For “double-column” Bibles, Scripture runs down the page in two columns—after the left column is read, the reader moves on to the right column.When it’s applicable, we’ve pointed out where cross references sit in the format.
  • Level: This is a completely subjective section that places study Bibles in either a Beginner, Intermediate, or Expert category. This is usually based on the academic level or accessibility of the notes.
  • Recommended for: This is a simple call out to the individuals we think will really benefit most by adding this to their study library.
  • Used by: If Jayson or Jeffrey personally use (or have used) this Bible, we will include that here. If we include our name here, you can assume this is a personal endorsement.

From there we attempted to share the background, history of these Bibles—and the study niches they intend to fill.

For personality driven Bibles (e.g. The MacArthur Study Bible), we’ve sought to give some insight into why someone would want to invest in their study Bible. For other Bibles, we’ve highlighted some of the general editors when it seemed helpful and important to do so.

Lastly, we have added bullet points with the study helps you can expect to find in each Bible.

If you’re looking for our review of a specific study Bible, you can jump to it by clicking on its title in this table. Otherwise, keep scrolling and enjoy!

Top Study Bibles

Study BibleLevelTranslationFormat
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible3 (Advanced)NIVDouble column, center-column references
NIV Zondervan Study Bible2 (Intermediate)NIVSingle column, margin references
The NKJV Study Bible2 (Intermediate)NKJVDouble column, center-column references
New Inductive Study Bible2 (Intermediate)NASB, ESVSingle column, inner-margin references, wide outside margins
ESV Study Bible2.5 (Intermediate–Advanced)ESVSingle column
The Reformation Study Bible2 (Intermediate)ESV, NKJVDouble column, center-column references
MacArthur Study Bible2 (Intermediate)NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIVDouble column, center-column references
HCSB Study Bible1 (Beginner)HCSBDouble column, center-column references
Thompson Chain-Reference Bible2 (Intermediate)KJV, NASB, NKJV, NIV, RVR, NVIDouble column, margin references
The Narrated Bible1 (Beginner)NIVSingle column
Life Application Study Bible1 (Beginner)NLT, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, HCSBSingle column
HarperCollins Study Bible3 (Advanced)NRSVDouble column

Now, let’s get into the list!

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Published: 2016
Publisher: Zondervan
Translation: NIV
Format: Double column, center column references
Level: Advanced
Used by: Jeffrey and Jayson

We’ve both written detailed, positive reviews on this Bible (here’s Jeffrey’s and here’s Jayson’s). It’s safe to say this makes Jeffrey’s list of top 5 favorite study Bibles at the time we wrote them (summer, 2016).

This study Bible is unique: rather than give you a theology lesson with every footnote, it gives you context for what the original readers of a passage would have been privy to.

For example, turn to Psalm 8 in any conventional study Bible and you’ll see notes on the Imago Deo, some tie-ins to Hebrews 2, and the like. But in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, you’ll find references to Egyptian cosmology, ancient Turkish political treaties, Mesopotamian flood legends, and more. You’re set up to understand how this psalm contrasts the beliefs of other nations, exalts God, and claims that God loves and esteems people as a special creation of his.

This Bible is laser-focused on helping you understand all the cultural rituals, beliefs, documents, and traditions that the Bible’s earliest readers had in mind. That means it’s NOT a starter study Bible—but it’s invaluable to the Bible geek!

From Zondervan’s website:

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, with notes from Dr. John H. Walton (Wheaton College) in the Old Testament and Dr. Craig S. Keener (Asbury Theological Seminary) in the New Testament, brings to life the ancient world of Scripture for modern readers.

Features include:

  • The full text of the NIV
  • Targeted book introductions explain the context in which each book of the Bible was written
  • Insightful and informative verse-by-verse study notes reveal new dimensions of insight to even the most familiar passages
  • Key Old Testament (Hebrew) and New Testament terms are explained and expanded upon in two helpful reference features
  • Over 300 in-depth articles on key contextual topics
  • 375 full-color photos, illustrations, and images from around the world
  • Dozens of charts, maps, and diagrams in vivid color
  • Words of Jesus in red
  • Additional study Bible tools: cross references, a concordance, indexes and other helps

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NIV Zondervan Study Bible

Published: 2015
Publisher: Zondervan
Translation: NIV
Format: Single column, margin references
Level: Intermediate

Recommended for: People interested in studying the Bible from a biblical theology perspective (examining how themes are developed across all of Scripture)
Used by: Jeffrey

This is the first, and to our knowledge, only study Bible built on a framework of biblical theology, which general editor D.A. Carson has describes as having a few foci:

  1. Interpreting Scripture book by book (or corpus by corpus) in context of the individual authors’ intents and contexts.
  2. Examining themes that develop across Scripture over time.

According to S. Michael Houdmann:

Many credit J. P. Gabler, a German biblical scholar, with beginning the field of biblical theology. As he was being inaugurated to a professorship in 1787, Gabler called for a sharp distinction between dogmatic (systematic or doctrinal) theology and biblical theology. For Gabler, biblical theology must be strictly a historical study of what was believed and taught in the various periods of biblical history, independent of modern denominational, doctrinal, philosophical, or cultural considerations.

This is a very helpful approach when studying the Bible, because we’re often used to studying the Bible in a top-down fashion. Many of us are taught a systematic theology that acts as a “key” to interpreting the Bible as a whole, but that makes it difficult to deal with the individual passages and books that seem to contradict the overarching way we’re taught to read the Bible.

But biblical theology is different: it puts us in the time and perspective of the author.

The NIV Zondervan Study Bible, according to Carson, “does emphasize biblical theology; that is to say, not only in the notes, but in [the 28] essays at the end. We are trying to track out how certain dominant themes run right through the whole Bible to enable readers to see where they are in the Bible at any particular point and, thus, put it all together.

“Now another Study Bible might use the final pages to build a whole systematic theology and I won’t criticize that. That too needs to be done. And so they rush, as it were, immediately to creating a whole confessional stance out of the Bible. And it is good to read the Bible in such a way as to see how the various parts contribute to the big picture theology.”

This Bible is massive (4.6 pounds!), and comes with all kinds of goodies:

  • More than 60 contributors, including:
    • T.D. Alexander — Genesis, Jonah; Articles: Law, Temple, The Kingdom of God, The City of God
    • D.A. Carson — John; Articles: The Bible and Theology, A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible, Sonship
    • Kevin DeYoung — Article: Sin
    • Iain M. Duguid — Jeremiah
    • Richard S. Hess — Genesis, Joshua, Song of Songs
    • Timothy Keller — Articles: The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central, Shalom
    • Douglas J. Moo — Romans, James, 2 Peter, Jude; Article: The Consummation
    • Christopher W. Morgan — Article: Wrath
    • Andrew David Naselli — John, 2 Peter, Jude; Article: Holiness
    • Moisés Silva — Article: People of God
    • Sam Storms — Article: Prophets and Prophecy
    • Mark L. Strauss — Acts
    • Bruce K. Waltke — Proverbs, Micah
    • Paul R. Williamson — Exodus; Article: Covenant
  • 28 articles tracing biblical themes through the entirety of Scripture
  • Print and digital versions available
  • More than 90 maps
  • More than 60 charts
  • Comprehensive introductions to every book of the Bible
  • Section Introductions to the Bible’s literary genres such as the Pentateuch and the Historical Books and Comprehensive Book Introductions including purpose, theme, outlines, and photos.
  • Hundreds of Color Photos such as biblical artifacts are placed within the Scripture text.
  • Nearly 20,000 Verse-by-Verse Notes by today’s leading biblical scholars offer insight on every passage of scripture.

This Bible is the kind of study Bible that you will keep and reference for years on end (though you might not carry it with you everywhere). It’s a massive, invaluable resource for studying the individual books of the Bible.

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The NKJV Study Bible

Published: 2009
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Translations: NKJV
Format: Double column with center-column references
Level: Intermediate
Recommended for: Christians who want a complete study Bible with all the bells and whistles

I (Jayson) love the NKJV. When it comes to in-depth study, I prefer the NASB (I’m a dinosaur), but if I’m just going to sit and read Scripture, I’ll often reach for a New King James Bible. I find that it really walks the tightrope between the readability of the NIV while retaining the poetry of the KJV. So, having a NKJV with study notes in it is a plus.

This is a hefty resource—my copy weighs in at about 5 lbs. When you look at what’s included in this Bible, you really get an idea of how big this resource has to be. Along with the Scripture it includes:

  • 15,000 expository notes
  • 103 articles that really give deep analysis to topics like faith vs. works
  • 114 articles on various doctrines
  • 150 cultural notes covering a variety of contextual issues
  • 80 charts that help contextual biblical passages
  • 350 word studies that are keyed to Strong’s Concordance
  • Over 65 maps presented in the text to help you understand a passage’s geography
  • Timelines for each book
  • An atlas with 78 maps
  • A 20-page topical index for the study helps sprinkled around the Bible
  • A NKJV concordance that’s over 190 pages

Like many study Bibles with a variety of contributors spanning many denominations, the expository notes in the NKJV Study Bible are pretty well balanced and even handed. They don’t skew too far in the Reformed or Arminian directions. Some people might find this frustrating, but it comes with the territory—and, in the end, it might be for the best.

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New Inductive Study Bible

Published: 2013
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Translation: NASB, ESV
Format: Single column, inner margin references, wide outside margins for notes
Level: Intermediate

Recommended for: People interested in studying the Bible for themselves (and prefer to take notes in their Bibles)
Used by: Jeffrey and Jayson

This is almost the anti-study Bible. Rather than a host of notes, articles, and commentary from Bible scholars, the New Inductive Study Bible is the Bible that puts the work of understanding the Bible on you. You do the work of reading each book of the Bible. You do the work of looking up cross-references. You do the work of digging through commentaries.

This is the study Bible that very quickly becomes one of a kind: because it’s full of your notes, outlines, and takeaways.

The New Inductive Study Bible is built entirely on the inductive Bible study method, which is a three-step approach to Bible study:

  1. Observe: see what the Bible says.
  2. Interpret: discover what it means.
  3. Apply: live accordingly

The value of the inductive method is that it allows you to study the Bible for yourself, using the Bible as the primary resource for studying itself. You don’t need a Bible college degree, seminary education, set of commentaries, or celebrity preacher telling you what the Bible says: you can dig into the Bible yourself.

The inductive method isn’t a novel idea—but it’s become popular through the teachings of Kay Arthur and Precept Ministries International. (Which is the organization that taught Jeffrey originally how to study and teach the Bible.) Arthur and the Precept team have authored the book introductions and study guides in the New Inductive Study Bible, which gives this Bible its distinctively un–study Bible–feel.

But don’t let the self-study style of this Bible fool you: it still comes with a good supply of resources to help you dig into the text:

  • An easy-to-understand explanation of the inductive study method
  • Overviews and specific study tips for every book of the Bible
  • “Observation charts” you can use to record what you learn on various topics
  • Insights into the history, cultures, and languages of the Bible
  • Full-color graphics, timelines, and maps to make the text come alive
  • Wide margins to record your observations
  • A useful concordance
  • A concise overview of what the Bible is, how it came to us, and how we can know it is the Word of God
  • A ten-page summary of the major events in Israel’s history
  • A one-year Bible reading plan and a three-year Bible study plan
  • A harmony of the Gospels

And one more testament to this study Bible: a decent amount of the book of the Bible overviews on this site were pulled from Jeffrey’s notes in his NISB.

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ESV Study Bible

Published: 2008
Publisher: Crossway
Translations: ESV
Format: Single column
Level: Intermediate–Advanced

Recommended for: People interested in deep study with an evangelical focus.
Used by: Jayson

The ESV Study Bible editors intend for it to “help people understand the Bible in a deeper way.” If the sheer size of this volume is any indication (it weighs over four pounds!), they’ve achieved their goal. Led by general editor, Wayne Grudem and theological editor, J. I. Packer, this resource is the collected work of 95 Bible scholars and teachers from 9 countries, 20 denominations, and 50 seminaries, colleges, and universities.

The English Standard Version (ESV) has become one of the most popular contemporary Bible translations. The fact that it’s a precise word-for-word translation doesn’t take away from the literary beauty of the biblical text. With the ESV Study Bible, Crossway built upon the combination of academic focus and engaging readability for a Bible that completely draws you in.

This is a Bible meant for study. Unless you’re holding it in your hands, it’s hard to really communicate the girth of this volume. The publisher’s description tells us that, along with the 757,000 words of the Bible itself, there are more than a million more words of explanation and teaching. If you’re looking for a study Bible you can carry wherever you go, this might not be ideal. But if you want a Bible that’s the equivalent of an entire library of extra-biblical resources, it’s worth taking a look at.

Along with its copious notes, the ESV Study Bible includes the following articles written by established evangelical luminaries:

  • A User’s Guide to the ESV Study Bible by Lane T. Dennis
  • An Overview of the Bible—Survey of the History of Salvation by Vern Poythress
  • Reading the Bible
  • God’s Plan for Salvation by Mark Dever
  • Theology of the Old Testament by C. John Collins
  • Introduction to the Pentateuch by Gordon Wenham
  • Introduction to the Historical Books by David M. Howard Jr.
  • Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Literature by David Reimer
  • Introduction to the Prophetic Books by Paul House
  • The Time Between the Testaments by J. Julius Scott Jr.
  • Jewish Groups at the Time of the New Testament by John DelHousaye
  • The Roman Empire and Greco-Roman World at the Time of the New Testament by David W. Chapman
  • The Theology of the New Testament by Tom Schreiner
  • The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion
  • Reading the Gospels and Acts by Darrell Bock
  • Reading the Epistles by Thomas R. Schreiner
  • The Canon of Scripture
    • The Canon of the Old Testament by Roger Beckwith
    • The Canon of the New Testament by Charles E. Hill
  • The Septuagint by Peter Gentry
  • The Reliability of Bible Manuscripts
    • The Reliability of the Old Testament Manuscripts by Paul D. Wegner
    • The Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts by Daniel B. Wallace
  • The New Testament and Critical Scholarship by Walter C. Kaiser
  • The Old Testament and Critical Scholarship by Darrell Bock
  • Archaeology and the Bible
    • Archaeology, Ancient History, and the Reliability of the Old Testament by John Currid
    • Archaeology, Ancient History, and the Reliability of the New Testament by David W. Chapman
  • The Original Languages of the Bible
  • How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament by C. John Collins
  • History of Salvation in the Old Testament: Preparing the Way for Christ
  • Overview of Bible Doctrine (includes 13 articles)
  • Overview of Biblical Ethics (Includes 12 articles)
  • The Bible and Other Religions by Harold Netland
  • The Bible and Religious Cults by Ron Rhodes
  • The Bible in Christianity
    • The Bible in Christendom: Roman Catholicism by Gregg R. Allison
    • The Bible in Christendom: Eastern Orthodoxy by Robert Letham
    • The Bible in Christendom: Liberal Protestantism by Bruce Ware
    • The Bible in Christendom: Evangelical Protestantism by Bruce Ware

While there is something in the ESV Study Bible for everyone, a lot of the content is going to be overwhelming to a new Christian. However, if you’re looking for an in-depth study experience from a distinctly evangelical perspective, this is an ideal choice.

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The Reformation Study Bible

Published: 2005
Publisher: Ligonier Ministries
Translations: ESV, NKJV
Format: Double column, center-column references
Level: Intermediate

Recommended for: People interested Bible study within the Reformed tradition.
Used by: Jayson

There aren’t many Reformed scholars more accessible, respected, or prolific than R. C. Sproul. He’s authored hundreds of books that run the theological gamut. As the general editor of the Reformed Study Bible, Sproul brings a level of expertise to both Bible study and reformed theology.

It’s important to note that—as the name would suggest—this study Bible comes from a specific theological position. But whether you consider yourself reformed or not, the Reformation Study Bible provides a thorough look into this theological tradition. People coming from a dispensational background will have plenty to think about when it comes to eschatology, and Weslyan or Arminian believers will be challenged to look at Romans 9 more critically.

A highlight unique to the Reformed Study BIble is the bundled section of Creeds and Confessions. Which includes:

  • The Apostles Creed
  • The Nicene Creed
  • The Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith
  • The 3 Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort)
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
  • Westminster Larger Catechism
  • Westminster Shorter Catechism
  • London Baptist Confession

These really help provide context and understanding for orthodox Christianity, and also highlight many scriptural passages which should be considered creeds in their own right: Deut 6:4, Phil 2:11, 1 Tim. 3:16, 1 Cor. 15:3-7, etc.

Along with the Creeds and Catechisms, the Reformed Study Bible also includes:

  • Over 20,000 study notes
  • Articles on various topics
  • Book introductions
  • Full-color maps
  • Theological notes index
  • In-text maps index
  • Section introductions (Pentateuch, History, Prophets, etc.)

If you’re committed to the Reformed theology, or just want to increase your understanding of this important Protestant tradition, the Reformed Study Bible will be valuable addition to your study library.

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MacArthur Study Bible

Published: 1997
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Translations: NKJV, NASB, ESV, and NIV
Format: Double column with center-column references
Level: Intermediate

Recommended for: Conservative (especially Calvinist-leaning) Christians. People who love studying the Bible verse by verse.

Christianity Today has called John MacArthur one of the top 25 most influential preachers of the last 50 years. MacArthur became the senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA in 1969. In the early days, MacArthur’s scriptural exposition was so popular that the church doubled in size every two years requiring the building of a Family Center in 1971 and a new worship center in 1977.

He attended Bob Jones University and Los Angeles Pacific College before receiving his Masters of Divinity from Biola University’s Talbot Theological Seminary. On top of pastoring at Grace Community Church for over 45 years, he became the president of The Master’s College in 1985, and founded The Master’s Seminary a year later.

MacArthur is an author of more than 150 books, including an extremely popular 33-volume New Testament commentary set. His ability to write clear verse-by-verse exposition that illuminates each passage, while providing thoughtful insight, has made this commentary series a favorite among pastors. And it’s this kind of keen perception that translates well into a study-Bible format.

The MacArthur Study Bible which has already sold more than 2 million copies, revolves around it’s 20,000+ study notes—over half of which were compiled from MacArthur’s own handwritten commentary. The rest of the notes were written by Master’s Seminary professors and reworked by MacArthur. This commentary explains important doctrines and is full of helpful insight into important Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words.

Beyond the copious notes, the Bible also features:

  • More than 140 two-color maps, charts, timelines, and illustrations
  • Complete Bible introductions to each book
  • Articles: How We Got the Bible and Introduction to the Bible
  • 80,000 cross references
  • Extensive concordance
  • Full color maps
  • Harmony of the gospels
  • Over 50 full-color maps
  • Outline of systematic theology
  • Index to key Bible doctrines
  • Bible Reading Plans

This Bible is ideal for people who want to dive deep into biblical exegesis. It’s easily accessible to newer students of the Bible but will really benefit someone who’s already familiar with the scriptures. People looking for a conservative understanding of biblical theology from a particularly Calvinist perspective will benefit greatly from this study Bible.

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HCSB Study Bible

Published: 2010
Publisher: Broadman & Holman
Translations: HCSB
Format: Double column, center-column references
Level: Beginner

Recommended for: People interested Bible study within the Reformed tradition.

When scholars began work on the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), they wanted to approach translation differently. Where past translations focused on deciphering the text word-for-word (formal equivalence) or translating the meaning of phrases and sentences (dynamic equivalence), the HCSB translators focused on finding a middle ground with what they called “optimal equivalence.”

The translators started by tearing into the Bible’s original languages at every level: word, phrase, clause, sentence, and discourse. From there, they translated semantic and linguistic equivalents from the manuscripts’ original meaning and intentions. When the work was complete, the translators were pleased with their rendering of both scripture’s original languages and intent.

Once the Holman Christian Standard was complete, work began on the HCSB Study Bible. To ensure they got it right, they started with a focus group to determine the layout of the ideal study Bible. The result is a resource where all helps are found on the same page spread with the pertinent Bible passages.

The HCSB Study Bible resources include:

  • 15,000 study notes
  • Four-color presentation pages
  • 141 photographs
  • Two-column text setting
  • 62 timelines
  • 59 maps
  • One-year Bible reading plan
  • 24 articles
  • 16 illustrations/reconstructions
  • Topical subheads
  • 15 charts

When coupled with the HCSB translation, the HCSB Study Bible materials create a suitable reference for new and seasoned Bible enthusiasts can get more out of their study.

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Thompson Chain-Reference Bible

Published: 1913 (first published in 1908)
Publisher: Kirkbride Bible Co.
Translations: KJV, NASB, NKJV, NIV, RVR, NVI
Format: Double column, margin references
Level: Intermediate

Recommended for: People interested in a systematic study of Scripture that isn’t reliant on commentary.
Used by: Jayson

In the late 1800s, Dr. Frank Charles Thompson was extremely disappointed with the reference Bibles available for preachers. Dr. Thompson began writing notes in the margin of his Bible that would contextually link appropriate verses together creating a “chain” of verses covering various topics.

When members of his church saw his Bible, they were floored. The idea that they could have a fuller understanding of a biblical topic by following a trail of similarly focused verses was a revelation. They were insistent that he have the work published.

The work was originally published in 1908 by Methodist Book Concern in Dobbs Ferry, NY. The interest was immediate and it developed a reputation as a fantastically helpful resource for clergy and laypeople alike. In 1913, Dr. Thompson and B. B. Kirkbride formed the Kirkbride Bible Company to make The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible more widely available.

Since then, Kirkbride has expanded the study materials to feature:

  • Over 100,000 topical references
  • Over 8,000 Chain Topics
  • Updated archaeological supplement with photos and maps
  • Outline studies of each biblical book
  • Journey maps and Bible harmonies
  • Character studies
  • Atlas
  • Concordance

The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible isn’t what comes to mind when people think about a “study Bible”—and that’s its strength. It isn’t full of commentary or opinion; it simply gives people the tools to let Scripture interpret Scripture. It’s the simplicity of this format that has helped it sell over four million.

If you want a study Bible that can unfold Scripture for you but isn’t a distraction to your regular Bible reading, this is it. This is a wonderful resource for anyone’s library and works perfectly as your personal, take-it-with-you Bible.

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The Narrated Bible

Published: 1997
Publisher: Harvest House
Translations: NIV
Format: Single column
Level: Beginner
Recommended for: New Christians trying to understand the narrative sweep of the Bible, seasoned believers looking for a good devotional Bible.

We all know that Bible literacy levels are abysmal. Part of the problem is that well-meaning new believers jump at the opportunity to read the Bible, but try to read it front-to-back like any other book. They start in Genesis, and by the time they get to the middle of Numbers, they’re done. Between the begots and the laws, they’re convinced that the Bible is too archaic and complicated for them, and that opinion affects their view of the Bible forever.

The Narrated Bible is a helpful antidote to this problem. It doesn’t have a lot of the accoutrements you would expect from a study Bible. There isn’t commentary and charts sprinkled throughout the text. Instead, The Narrated Bible attempts to place the biblical narrative in chronological order to help readers understand the flow of the entire biblical story.

For most believers, the ability to really grasp understand Scripture’s story might actually be more important than getting lost in the cultural details. Once there’s a real grasp of the Bible’s narrative, then it’s a lot more helpful to start tearing into the details. A lot of study Bibles have people who are virtually unfamiliar with Scripture getting lost in details way too soon.

For those who want to keep a steady Bible reading discipline, The Narrated Bible is broken into daily readings. Texts are broken up with a little sun icon to let you know when you’re done reading for the day. It’s a nice feature that isn’t too intrusive for people who want to read larger chunks of Scripture.

Content that isn’t narrative is broken up thematically:

  • The laws of Moses are arranged together by subject
  • Wisdom literature is laid out topically
  • The gospels are presented in one congruous account
  • Throughout the book of Acts, Paul’s are presented in their corresponding context

Throughout the Bible, author F. LaGard Smith ties readings together with insightful notes. This is really helpful because one of my biggest criticisms of this Bible is how daunting it is to have the law compiled into what feels like weeks of readings. To have some explanation and discussion of its significance is really helpful.

There are definitely challenges in breaking the Bible into a narrative format. For instance, did Jesus clear the temple once or twice? Did John or Matthew put this even in the narrative where it made most sense to them, or did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning or the end of his ministry? No matter how questions like this are dealt with, someone’s going to be frustrated.

These issues aside, The Narrative Bible is still a strong tool for getting a big-picture view of God’s story.

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Life Application Study Bible

Published: 1996
Publisher: Tyndale
Translations: NLT, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, HCSB,
Format: Single column
Level: Beginner

Recommended for: Newer Christians or people not overly familiar with the Bible.

The idea for the best-selling, award-winning Life Application Study Bible began with the desire to answer the question, “What does God’s Word mean for my life today?” The nearly 10,000 application study notes provide fresh encouragement to help you apply the passage you’re reading to your daily life.

But don’t worry that you’re not going to get enough study material out of this resource. Along with all the application helps, this Bible is equipped with:

  • Personality profiles which explain the background and significance of over 100 Bible characters
  • Book introductions which include vital statistics, overviews, and historical timelines
  • 200 in-text thumbnail maps highlighting important places and events
  • 260 charts explaining important difficult concepts and relationships
  • Cross-references
  • Harmony of the gospels
  • Dictionary
  • Concordance
  • Reading Plans
  • Full-color maps

This Bible was made for anyone who reads their Bible and finds themselves saying, “So what?” The Life Application Study Bible works to bridge the gap between the text and your daily life. It seeks to give practical challenges and next steps from your Bible reading, but it also teaches you to ask your own questions of the text.

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HarperCollins Study Bible

Published: 2006
Publisher: HarperOne
Translations: NRSV
Format: Double column
Level: Advanced

Recommended for: People interested in a wider ecumenical theological understanding.

One of the first things you notice in the HarperCollins Study Bible (HCSB) is the inclusion of the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books. These books, sacred to both Orthodox and Catholic believers, are not considered canonized in Protestant Bibles. This is your first sign that this isn’t your typical study Bible.

While the HarperCollins Study Bible is a fixture in many secular classrooms and mainline seminaries, more conservative Christians are going to find some of the ecumenical and critical commentary challenging.

The work on the updated HCSB was overseen by Dr. Harold Attridge, the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament. With Dr. Attridge’s supervision, notes and book introductions were created with attention to the most up-to-date critical scholarship by leading biblical experts.

Along with the NRSV text, you’ll find:

  • Introductions to each book
  • Commentary and notes throughout
  • Abundant maps, tables, and charts
  • Concordance
  • Essays on:
    • Archaeology of ancient Israel and the New Testament world
    • Religion of ancient Israel
    • The social and historical context of each biblical book
    • Biblical interpretation

This Bible would be a strong addition to the library of serious Bible students. The scholarship is top notch and the study content provides helpful literary, cultural, and historical background and context. One thing that users of other study Bibles will note is the absence of application that they might be used to seeing. The HCSB editors leave the reader to work out the text’s personal implications. For this reason, some might prefer this as a supplemental Bible.

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