I hate Study Bibles

I love the Bible.  I’ve devoted my life to the teaching of God’s word.  But I have a confession to make.

I hate Study Bibles.  Not the actual Bible part, the “Study” part, where they add all those extra notes in the margins and at the bottom of the page.

I want to invoke the curse at the end of Revelation (21:18-19), which states that if anyone adds to the words of the prophecy, all the nasty things that Revelation describes will come upon them.   Seems appropriate, don’t you think?

Why?  A valid question.

The comments in Study Bibles appear to have the same authority as Scripture because they are printed right there on the same page.  That’s scary.  Hence the Revelation curse.  In fact, since the comments often attempt to clarify an unclear text, they seem to have more authority than God’s word.  Obviously, discerning readers will view the comments critically and take them with a grain of salt, but most people don’t do that.

I can’t count the number of times during a Bible discussion someone says, “Well, my Bible says…”.  I ask, “Is that your Bible, or a note in the margin?”  It’s usually a Study Bible comment.  In my 5+ years of teaching at Seminary, I’ve read hundreds of papers that quote Study Bibles in academic papers.

Study Bible comments are kind of like stuff on the internet.  Sometimes the information is good, sometimes it’s junk.  But at least when you go to the internet, you know you’re going to find some junk.  You don’t expect to find junk in your Bible.  At least you shouldn’t.

Some Study Bibles are relatively harmless, and even helpful at times.  The notes are limited and just provide context and background that most typical Bible readers just don’t know.  But most Study Bibles can’t resist the temptation to speak with authority on matters that Scripture isn’t clear about (here comes that Revelation curse).  They often give a particular theological emphasis or interpretation.  I’ve seen comments that attempt to lay out the correct biblical perspective on Baptism, authorship of a book, spiritual gifts, women in leadership, the environment, etc.  Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t–that doesn’t matter–what matters is that people are inserting their theology directly into the text.

I’m not going to mention any Study Bibles in particular (there are hundreds out there), and I realize that many people love them and find them helpful.  Just a word of caution, take those comments with a grain of salt.

View Study Bible comments like you’d view the comments from a person in your Small group.  Sometimes you agree, sometimes you don’t.  Study Bible comments can be like the person who talks too much, talks too dogmatically and doesn’t ask questions.  They’re not fun to have in a discussion.

What kind of information do you want or find helpful in your Bibles? 

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20 comments

  1. I completely agree. And your last paragraph was priceless! I am going to share that with my staff partner who had a “study Bible” in her freshman Bible study this year.

  2. The Bible I use most often is the one given to me by a good college friend- I’ve had it for more than 20 years. It’s not a study Bible, but does have an intro/outline for each book which have been very helpful. I also enjoy using the cross reference scriptures given in the margins. At a minimum, this would be sufficient for me. But then, I also know now to use a concordance and a Bible dictionary. I just bought my daughter a Bible similar to mine as a baptism gift (she was baptized this past summer). She’s so excited to be using this instead of the children’s Bible she had for Bible study.

  3. I so agree! Thanks Dave! The historical/cultural info can be great, but the other stuff is normally just one persons opinion on what they think it means as they filter the words through their own theological lense, which isn’t always so clear, but then who am I to say? 🙂

  4. Ben, Anna, Hamlet, Thanks for the comments.
    Like most Bible tools, SB’s can help but they really can push a bias in a way that almost feels manipulative because it’s so sneaky–right there next to Scripture. Readers beware. Blessings.

    1. Okay, so I have gtoetn behind. I can’t make excuses. I mean, yes I am tired and exhausted after work, being a wife and the mom of 2 young kiddos and then of course there is the normal house work and so on and so forth.BUT, I stay up late and then hit snooze for an hour in the morning before having to jump out of bed to get everyone ready to head out the door.My prayer life..my relationship with God, has been lacking the past couple of months. I’ve gone through some big things recently:My best friend was one of a about 15 or more that left our church for various reasons, most of which I am unsure about or just don’t understand…so needless to say, that has put a line between us in some ways and oh the emotions that I have experienced because of that. Anyhow, I would like for your prayers and encouragement and I am just praying that I will stop, and listen to God and draw closer to Him. I am going to set out this week to spend as much time catching up on my studies and spending time in His Word. Thank you for this place of study…this place of encouragement!

  5. I join you in your hatred and agree with your reasons. My daughter was given a Teen Study Bible when she graduated from junior youth group at the end of primary (elementary) school. I have no idea why the youth group chose this particular translation to start with because it’s not one that our denomination uses, but the side notes are plain awful. I have just opened it randomly and found a feature page in full colour that says: “School [skool], n: an institution for the instruction or education of children young people. Alternate definition: a place where teens have to learn stuff adults never use but say teens will need some day.” Now I am *so* happy to have *that* as part of my daughter’s Bible – not!!! Every time I’ve opened it (not often) I’ve found something that made my blood boil. Fortunately, she showed no interest in reading it (she uses an ordinary NRSV) and it’s too big and heavy to carry around, anyway.

  6. It sounds to me as though you may have had an experience with someone who disagreed with your interpretation of a particular text – and pointed to the notes in his/her study bible as the authority as to the ‘proper’ interpretation.

    The reason I think this is that I have a very similar distaste for the KJV after hearing people pronounce this as THE biblical authority OVER any and all other versions (I’ve even heard someone say over the Greek & Hebrew mss.)
    This was so far off base that I set out to prove this person/these people wrong.
    While I would read the KJV now and again before – I’ve grown very far apart from it sense – even to the point of ridiculing anyone else who would dare to read it.
    The Quakers were convinced that the Baptists had so misinterpreted the importance/practice of baptism that they banned all baptismal ceremonies in the Quaker Church.
    What I’m getting at is that often times in religion we ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and refuse to accept that any of it may be good. For me, I equate the notes in any study bible as a brief, but useful commentary.
    As with any other book or commentary I would purchase separately I like to know and mostly agree with the writers theology before referencing it.

    The most helpful aspect of a study bible is that when you’re simply referencing the Bible – the notes can provide quick contextual briefs helping to ensure that you’re not going to use passages out of context.

  7. Very insightful post. Honestly, I’ve rarely, if ever, heard anyone talk about Study Bibles like this before. I don’t know if I agree with you totally, especially knowing how helpful Study Bibles are to those who are new to the Bible. If they are worth anything, they provide some great cultural/historical background that is vital for new believers/readers to know.

    I confess, my current main Bible is a Study Bible. But I think you’ve successfully done what a blogger always aims to do: you convinced me of one thing! The next Bible I get for myself will not be a Study Bible.

  8. PB, Thanks for the post. The main thing is take the comments with a grain of salt. Differentiate between divinely inspired Scripture and human commentary, which is sometimes good and sometimes lame.

  9. David, some good engagement going on here. I have less problem with “study Bibles” when I know it is a good, scholarly edited one (I trust you would agree). Harper Collins Study Bible, NOAB, Access Bible; all of these I have no problem with students using, and am glad for them. Even if they may be a bit dense, and above intro students’ heads at times, it sometimes works in my favor for the same reason you suggest these (less academic?) study Bibles can be a detriment: if a student questions a particular point I make–which I encourage; I am more than open to thoughtful questions and engagement–I can quite often point to the scholarly essay, IN THEIR BIBLES!!, and show that I’m not making this stuff up. Most recently I did something similar with the ha-satan point in the book of Job. Of course, everyone assumes it’s the devil/satan, and when I explain that is a later interpretation and development, always met with some incredulous looks, I pointed them to the scholarly note in the text of the Bible we are using for class. It seemed to be a worthwhile exercise.

    But yes, in general, I share your dislike for these more devotional type Bibles. A good scholarly annotated Bible, though?—absolutely!

  10. John, I agree there are some better than others, but the main problem is just having the comments right there next to the actual text. People are more likely to read the secondary source over the primary source. It gives them “answers” too quickly, too easily, and, like I said, sometimes the “answers” are totally lame.

  11. Study Bibles will always be problematic because they are inherently flawed within their own concept. For instance, some passages of scripture require a whole book to get into the depths of it, but study bibles can only afford a few sentences at most. That is one problem. Another problem is if they try to give credence to every conceivable theological position on every single doctrine or eschatology, you will be even more confused than ever. But if they teach a particularly narrow theological view, there is a good chance they may be wrong about a whole lot of things, and stifle the reader by introducing errors and/or omitting truth. Another problem is that God’s Word is just too deep to try to fully rely on the study notes as being “all there is” to the meaning of the text. The best study bible that I know of (The Reformation Study Bible) I find myself feeling dissatisfied many times when I read the study notes, then I stop and realize that I am expecting too much out of something that is only able to deliver so little. It’s like expecting your car to drive across the country on a half a tank of gas. Study bibles even if they were theoretically theologically perfect, would still be disappointing due to the limited amount of note space in which to convey all the meaning that God’s word contains. My conclusion is, if you are in love study bibles, you are probably relying on it’s notes way too much. If you hate study bibles, you probably are expecting too much from them.

    Let God be true and every man a liar. Romans 3:4

  12. Amen! Study Bibles don’t teach us to digest and own our understanding and personal or communal response to the text. They give us the “answer”. I don’t know about you, but in my life, the things that have made the most lasting transformative changes are when I read the text and interpret it with the spirit and in a community and earnestly pray about my response.

  13. Dear Dave. Greetings from a fellow hater of study Bibles. I will never forget my first teaching experiences of Intro to OT when I tried making a salient point: ‘Sometimes the Bible does not give us a date or any other historical information. Take the book of Joel, for example. It does not give a clue to its date’. But, lo and behold, a guy raises his hand and states with authority that the book of Joel was written in 752 BC (I can’t remember exactly). I stand flabbergast, staring at the student. I tentatively ask, being aware that I am the foreigner and non-native English speaker and therefore may not have understood him correctly, if he could please clarify where in the text of Joel it says that. Oh, he says, it says here in the margin. Since then, I have prayed for a purge of Study Bibles.

  14. TThe only thing that I don’t like about my study Bible is that it takes up too much paper. I find myself flipping through several pages just to get to a certain verse.

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