Choosing a good study Bible is not always an easy task. “Which Bible is right for me?” is a question that has no right answer. The answer is “It depends.”
- It depends on how literal a translation you want.
- It depends on your comfortable reading level.
- It depends on what study tools you want in your Bible.
Because it depends on some basic preferences, we will be looking at the areas of those preferences.
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Bible Translations: Literal, Dynamic Equivalence, and Free
Unless you are a Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic scholar, you read a translation of the Bible. Three schools of thought exist when it comes to translations: literal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and free translation.
Literal Equivalence tries to translate words as directly as possible from the original languages. This method keeps historically accurate terms, such as shekel, cubit, and denarius, even though these words are not in common use today and their meaning may be unknown or confusing to readers. Two examples of Literal Equivalence translations are The King James Version and The New American Standard Version.
Dynamic Equivalence tries to translate words, idioms, and grammar into equivalents of today’s language. Like Literal Equivalence, it keeps the historically accurate terms. This version is generally easier to read. Two examples are The New International Version and The New Revised Standard Version.
Free Translation tries to bring the multiple-thousands years old language of the original texts into today’s language. There is seldom any attempt to match the actual words of the original with the words in the translations. Instead, this form of translation focuses mostly on translating ideas and concepts. Original terms, such as shekel, are translated as modern equivalents. Some of these are paraphrases, rewording of English translations, and some are actual translations from the original languages. Two examples are The Message and The Living Bible.
Each of these translations has strengths and weaknesses. Generally speaking, the more literal the translation is, the higher the reading level. So, if your comfortable reading level is early high school or lower, you may be more comfortable with a dynamic equivalent translation or a free translation. Also, literal translations tend to have more stiff and formal language. Their word-for-word style makes them ideal for word studies and verse analysis.
Free translations are simply easier to read. However, because they are more of a thought-for-thought translation than word-for-word, free translations present a greater possibility of including an idea not in the original writer’s thoughts. Free translations, because of this tendency, are great supplemental texts for studying, but not great for using as primary texts.
Dynamic equivalence translations try to find the middle ground, including the best of both literal and free translations. My personal experience is that most adults use dynamic equivalence translations.
Bible Reading Levels
I’ve already mentioned reading levels a few times. This is an important consideration when choosing a Bible. The easier, lower reading levels will have shorter sentences, simpler words, and easier to understand grammatical constructions. As you can see from the example below, however, free translations are not necessarily shorter.
- For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. – NASB (literal)
- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – NIV (dynamic equivalent)
- This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. – MESSAGE (free)
I have created a chart for you that lists the most common versions, along with readability levels, and what type of translation it is. The information on this chart was drawn from multiple sources. To get it, simply sign up for my Bible study resources.
Study Bible Tools
In addition to the primary concerns of translation and readability, you might want to think about what tools you’d like your Bible to have. Below are some of the most common features.
Concordance. I’ve never owned a Bible without a concordance since I got saved. I find them to be very handy for looking up verses I mostly remember, but not quite. A concordance is an alphabetical index of common words in the Bible. By using a concordance, you can find verses that refer to specific topics. For example, you might look up the word salvation, if you knew that a verse contained the phrase, ‘power of God for salvation,’ but didn’t know where it was found. You locate that phrase in the concordance, under the heading of salvation, and see that it is found in Romans 1:16.
Study notes. I love study notes in my Bible because they give me greater insight into the passages I’m reading. However, I also think they can make me weak when it comes to Bible study, taking the notes over my own time in the Word. That said, I prefer to have study notes. Some study notes will discuss interpretation, and some will discuss application – it varies widely depending on the version you’re using. For example, I have a Life Application Study Bible, as you may guess from the name, those notes are heavy on application.
Cross-References. Second to the concordance, this is the feature of my Bible that I use the most. Cross-references list other passages of Scripture that relate to the one you are reading. They are generally found in a side or middle column on the same page as the text. Continuing with the Romans 1:16 passage we found with the concordance, I turn to it in my Bible and find the following cross-references: Mark 8:38; 2 Timothy 1:8, 12, 16; 1 Corinthians 1:18, 24; Acts 3:26; Romans 2:9; and John 7:35. Each of these references is linked to one word or phrase in the verse. The Mark and 2 Timothy passages are linked to the word “ashamed.” To understand more about how that word is used and what it means, you would look up those references.
Maps. Biblical events occurred in history in real places. The maps that are included with many Bibles help us to visualize where things were happening. Most Bibles will have several maps. My study bible, The New Inductive Study Bible, has maps for the Exodus, the division of the land among the tribes of Israel, modern Israel, Israel in Jesus’ time, and more scattered throughout the text or located behind the concordance.
Timelines. My Bible also has timelines, although this is a less common feature. I love timelines. I can see at a glance, what was happening in the world of the Bible when Isaiah was a prophet in Judah. Who was king? What was the major power kingdom of the time? Who were his contemporaries? What books of the Bible cover the same time period? The timeline in my Bible answers these questions.
Other Features. Size of the type, red-letter editions, leather covers, indexing, or target audience (teens, moms, men) are all features to consider when choosing your primary Bible. If you are purchasing a Bible that will be your primary study Bible for many years, be sure to take your time to investigate all the options you might want. Choose wisely and you won’t regret it.
The most important thing to remember is to read, study, meditate on, pray over, and apply the Scriptures to your life. What Bible you have doesn’t matter near as much as what you do with it.