How To Study The Bible For Yourself
2. Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia
5. Interlinear Bible
6. Parallel Bible
9. Background Resources
11. Bible Maps & Archaeology & Bible Lands
12. Computer Software
13. The Most Essential Tool
In order to get the most out of your Bible study, you should employ the correct tools. Just as a doctor, or a carpenter will make use of tools to perform their tasks, the Bible scholar uses tools to assist and enhance the study process. As you become skilled in the use of these tools you will find that your Bible studies will yield ever increasing rewards. Listed below are some of the more important tools:
This may seem to need no mention but a trustworthy translation of the Bible is essential if we are to be confident that we are as close as possible to the original reading of the passage except that we are reading it in English. A study Bible will not be essential but it will be a tremendous asset as study Bibles usually include in one volume many useful study helps such as: cross-
references, historical background information, book introductions and outlines, etc.
Another important type of Bible worth purchasing is a parallel Bible, one that shows on one page several translations side by side, making it easier to compare various translations of a passage. My personal preference for a study Bible would contain only the text of a reliable translation, a good collection of cross-references, a useful dictionary/concordance and a relevant set of maps and charts. The primary benefit of such a Bible would be that it would tend to avoid the risk of doctrinal error that is inherent in study Bibles laden with interpretive notes and encourage its user to allow the Bible to speak for itself.
Several of the more reliable and popular study Bibles are:
a. The ESV Study Bible is perhaps the finest study Bible I have yet encountered. Combining a translation that is both readable and highly accurate with study notes that enhance the Bible's message, the ESV Study Bible is a joy to use. Copious charts, maps and notes make the text come alive and enable our entry into a culture 2,000 years gone as much as is possible in a single volume. With 80,000 cross-references, extensive tables of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the New Testament, geographical and historical background it is possibly the most comprehensive study guide available.
b. The Thompson Chain Reference Bible which is still one of the standards by which other study Bibles are measured and is one of the few study Bibles actually included in readily available Bible study software. Over forty years of research and study were spent in compiling the system of topical chains and references that allow the Bible student to quickly come to an understanding of almost any area of study. Extensive archaeological information is also printed for many places referred to within the text of the Bible. As well it boasts a considerable topical Bible, and a large concordance each of which enhances the ability of the Bible student to easily locate specific teaching or verses in the Bible. All in all there is a very good reason why the Thompson Chain Reference Bible is still one of the most popular study Bibles available.
c. The New Inductive Study Bible is an excellent study resource with a minimum of interpretive notes but a wealth of guidelines on interpretive principles, even the various book introductions refrain from specific analysis and offer guides to interpretation instead. The New Inductive Study Bible is also a relatively conservative treatment of the Bible; for example, although many study Bibles include a chronology of Biblical events the chronology included with the NISB is one of the few I have seen that begins at 4000BC rather than ambiguously referring to the pre-Abrahamic period as the undatable past. With many maps, charts, cross-references (although not as many cross-references as in the NIV Study Bible, there are significantly more than in many other study Bibles) and wide margins around the text this is an especially useful resource for the serious Bible student.
d. The Open Bible which contains a cyclopedia topical index, a concordance, book introductions and analyses, and many other valuable helps and study guides. Although its cross-referencing system is not up to the standard set by other study Bibles this lack is ably compensated for through its comprehensive topical dictionary. The Open Bible also includes tools of value for Christian workers such as answers to common objections to Christianity and basic Gospel presentation. Although more difficult to obtain than previously it is an extremely useful tool and is highly recommended.
e. The NIV Study Bible which with its in text maps and historical notes is an excellent choice. Its cross-referencing system is almost without peer as to quantity (about 100,000) and usefulness. It also contains excellent book introductions, maps, and quite a large concordance, as well as many other useful tools. Other notes, however, offer very useful biographical, historical and cultural information in a very timely manner.
f. The NIV Thinline Reference Bible is a compact reference Bible combining the NIV text with the extensive cross-reference system of the NIV Study Bible and a moderately sized concordance. This Bible is very good for inductive Bible study as it includes none of the study notes commonly included with study Bibles and allows Bible students to follow a concept through the Bible and come to their own conclusions on the Bible's teaching.
Any combination of the above would appear in-text as much as possible without disrupting the readability of the Bible so that the necessary resources are present where and when they are needed with a minimum of page turning except to minimize repeated identical references.
Many other excellent study Bibles are available but those listed above enjoy almost universal approval. Regardless of which study Bible you make use of you must be aware of any apparent bias on the part of the study helps incorporated into the Bible. Some study Bibles emphasize through their notes and helps doctrinal opinions that are accepted by only a small minority of believers and which can sometimes be at odds with the truth of the Bible itself. Even several of today's standard translations will occasionally exhibit a theological trend somewhat off the beaten path and of which the student must be aware. When in doubt as to the value of a specific study help remind yourself that any contradiction between human understanding of the Bible and the true meaning of God’s word is always due to finite capabilities of the human mind and its ability, regardless of the level of education, to make mistakes.
1 Corinthians 13:9-12 "For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
No set of notes will ever be perfect as each will be the product of the human mind and will never be without a certain amount of bias; all comments and reference notes must be compared against the Bible itself. It is always a worthwhile task to review the editorial and copyright information within any Bible you wish to purchase/use in order to determine the nature of the bias present in that treatment of God’s word and be prepared for when it appears during your studies.
It is also a very good idea to ask if you can preview any Bible before you purchase it and examine its notes on specific issues. Pay specific interest to the notes relating to issues that would be of concern, such as: creation, eschatology (the study of end times), theology (the study of God), or soteriology (the study of atonement). For those who interpret Genesis literally the notes in most modern study Bibles will fall far short of their ideal, having chosen to compromise the teaching of God with that of man by interpreting the Bible in the light of evolutionist teaching.
Also controversial are modern translations that remove gender specifics in reference to God, weaken the Bible’s authority on homosexuality and/or other morality issues, or deny the interruption of the normal by acts of Gods’ power (miracles). If no available study Bible meets your immediate needs perhaps a combination of any or all of the tools below should be considered.
Acts 17:10-12 "Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men."
How to Use this Tool
a. As has been and will be stated throughout this work let the Holy Spirit speak to you through the Bible. Do not come to it seeking confirmation of a favored idea (unless it has been supported through the previous study) but come to the Bible seeking to have your mind opened and your ideas directed toward your God..
b. The Bible is itself the inspired word of God and, as Paul has said, is suitable for training and correction unto Godliness. The chapters, verses, divisional headings, marginal notes, cross-references and all other additional materials are all the work of man and are therefore not nearly so trustworthy. It can sometimes be of great benefit to read the Bible without all that has been added throughout the years to facilitate our use of it. A Bible with only chapter and verse notation (as it is next to impossible to obtain a Bible with the words alone) can be very useful when you are gathering a feel for the context of the passage being studied.
c. Read the Bible not merely as a textbook on how everything came to be but as a textbook on yourself. You and I are participants in the Bible story to as great an extent as any of the characters portrayed within its pages. You and I are as much (potential) recipients of salvation through Jesus Christ as were the Hebrews of Jesus' day (in His physical presence on Earth in human form).
Since the Bible was written in a culture that no longer exists it is difficult for us to place ourselves in a position to understand Biblical writing in a manner similar to those to whom it was originally written. The distance between us and the original audience is great, in terms of both culture and time. Many individuals, events, and nations referred to in the Bible are completely unknown to the average reader while some are unknown even to our current understanding of history and are only revealed as archaeological inquiry unearths extra-Biblical evidence of their existence (indeed many will doubt the Biblical record as a legitimate historical document unless such extra-Biblical evidence is found).
These two tools are designed to reduce this difficulty and contain much information that will help us to feel as much as possible the impact that the text would have had on its original recipients. At the very least they enable us to participate to a small degree in the culture in which the Bible was produced and come to some understanding of the times in which it was written.
Encyclopedia (be patient large file)
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (PDF Download)
How to Use This Tool
a. Use a Bible Dictionary/Encyclopedia to look up the definition and significance of unfamiliar words as you encounter them.
b. Read it in your free time as a way of becoming familiar with the way of life as it was lived in Bible times.
c. Compare the information in two or more Bible Dictionaries/Encyclopedias. Occasionally versions of these resources make compromises on critical issues (such as creation vs. evolution) that many Christians may not necessarily feel equipped to evaluate critically. Where disagreement exists between the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of man it is the teaching of man that must be modified.
Such as "Young’s Analytical Concordance", "Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance", or "Cruden’s Compact Concordance." Each of these contains the location of every use of every word of the Bible (or most major words in the case of "Cruden's Compact Concordance") and are usually keyed to the King James Version. Most Bible software includes similar capabilities which are often extended to include logical and phrase searches; greatly adding to the value already found in the concordance.
A concordance is an excellent tool to use when performing a word study as it allows us to follow the usage of the word in question in both negative and positive contexts. Were we to use a cross-referencing system to follow a particular word through the Bible we might find that in general only usages of a certain type would be included since the cross-reference is an edited listing of related verses. When studying the meaning of words such as faith, love or sin the concordance is the best tool to use gain an appreciation of the Bible's understanding of the word.
A good concordance is Strong's Exhaustive Concordances read online.
How to use this tool
a. As there are many different translations of the Bible available it would be cumbersome to have a concordance for each one. A very practical way of using one concordance with multiple Bible translations is to look up the verse you are studying in the translation for which you have a concordance and see what word in that verse most closely matches the word in the translation you are using as your study Bible. This has the added benefit of letting you see how the word was treated in different translations of the Bible and how it was translated elsewhere in the Bible you are using.
b. Keep a bookmark or two in your Bible and use them as you could be looking up a great number of passages. Keep one or two in your concordance as well.
Or word study such as "Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words" or the "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament." Since the Bible we read today is a translation of thoughts and ideas that were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, such a tool is useful in determining the original intent of the author by making available to the modern reader a detailed definition of the English word(s) in the context of the original language word(s) used. Most lexicons will also give detailed information as to how the original word(s) would have been used by men and women alive at the time that the passage was written. A concise dictionary of the words in The Hebrew Bible by James Strong here.
How to use this tool
a. Like a concordance, the lexicon is usually keyed to a specific translation of the Bible so the usage tips that apply to finding a specific word in a concordance also apply to the lexicon.
b. A good lexicon will also list the various ways in which the original word was translated into your language, some of which may better agree with your preconceptions than others. Let the context in which the word appears in the Bible be your guide as you select which of the definitions to apply to your study.
Simply put, an interlinear Bible is a Bible in which each line of English text is interspersed by that same text as it would appear in the original language. This allows you to actually see the structure of thought in the original and gives you an extremely literal translation, although very difficult to understand. A second advantage of using an interlinear Bible is that you can determine at a glance the actual words used by the original authors and how these words have subsequently been treated by the translators of the English Bible. Most bookstores will have copies available of some form of interlinear New Testament, and most computer Bible programs will also have an interlinear New Testament. Interlinear copies of the Old Testament are less practical as Hebrew was written from right to left and therefore an exact English translation would be extremely difficult to read unless the Hebrew original were to be reversed, which would somewhat defeat the purpose of the process.
A parallel Bible contains two or more translations of the Bible in the same language. This tool is useful when the student wishes to compare how a passage has been translated by differing schools of thought. Again, although the student may be tempted to accept on translation's treatment over an other's, we must all remain open to the guidance of God's Holy Spirit and allow Him to teach us what we need to be taught rather than choosing a translation that appeals to our opinions or bends the Bible to our own will.
As the difference between even the two most divergent translation traditions (as represented by the King James Version and the New International Version) amounts at most to only 5% of the Bible, and as this difference in no way affects any critical Christian doctrine, the parallel Bible is often less important than the other Bible study tools.
It does, however, allow the student to easily determine where differences have occurred and perhaps note those areas for further study. One problem with studying with a parallel Bible lies in the uncertainty of which text to follow in the event of textual differences. In the case where such differences occur it is recommended that you fall back upon an alternate resource, such as “The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge” (below) in order to determine what alternate passages of the Bible may have to say regarding the passage being studied.
How to use this tool
In the section below on Indecisiveness, the dangers of having differing opinions of a certain passage is discussed. As the various translations within a parallel Bible will often express Biblical teaching in different ways we may be tempted to choose the translation that most suits our desires. Again, it is the context of the passage that determines its meaning. Alternate translations may shed light on a passage but their teaching must not be accepted simply because it appeals to us. We must also take care not to reject an alternate translation if it states things differently than does our favored translation.
A system of cross-references, like those found in most modern reference Bibles or in dedicated works such as "The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge," (which contains over 600,000 cross-references, several different indexes, and a comprehensive note system) can refer you to other passages that relate to the one being studied. Cross-references are quite possibly the single most important and useful Bible study tool available as they operate on the foundational principle of allowing the Bible to be its own interpreter. When purchasing a study Bible it is a good idea to review the type of cross-referencing system it employs as well as the quantity of references printed. Many of today’s study Bibles have an average of 50,000 cross-references. A concordance, such as those mentioned above, is useful in cross-referencing specific words and phrases so that methods of usage of a specific word sequence may be discovered but a good cross-reference system allows you to follow concepts and ideas throughout the Bible as well as specific words and phrases.
How to use this tool
a. cross-references, either in a study Bible or in a stand alone resource, will indicate to which words the cross-references apply by a letter, symbol or some other method.
b. Give yourself a lot of time to properly explore the cross-references, especially if using a resource such as The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (which contains several hundred thousand cross-references).
c. Avoid distraction. As you explore the cross-references you will come across verses which seem to require follow up (this is especially true if you are using a computer based study Bible). Stay close to your primary area of inquiry and follow the side trails as time permits.
d. If possible use two Bibles, one to keep open to the passage you are studying and the second with which to look up the various cross-references.
Although somewhat limited in value to inductive Bible study (since it confines us to an other’s understanding of a given passage) a good commentary can be beneficial in opening our minds to thoughts of a passage that we may otherwise have neglected or not noticed. Most generally available modern commentaries are reprints of such classics as that of Matthew Henry, as well as compendiums of thought by (usually) trustworthy modern scholars.
Such a commentary can shed additional historical or theological light on the passage being studied and we can gain great benefit from the knowledge of those who have made it their life's work to make available further information pertaining to the Bible. In many instances a great deal of background research into the times of the passage has been done by the commentator which can be of great value to our own study. Used with care and prayer a commentary can significantly increase the rewards of our Bible study.
It is important to remember that in inductive Bible study you are seeking your interpretation of the Bible as guided by the Holy Spirit and so a commentary should not generally be referred to until you are fairly certain that you have gained an understanding of the passage in question and require the corroboration and/or further information that a commentary can provide. Many modern study Bibles also include short, in context commentary as a part of their system of helps, the NIV Study Bible and the Life Application Study Bible are notable examples of this technique which, while useful, presents the constant temptation to forgo one's own analysis of the Bible in favour of that which has been presented to us by others..
One important point to remember when employing a commentary is that, while commentaries are generally the trustworthy works of scholars who have made A careful study of the Bible, we should not be afraid to suspect the work of even the most trusted source if it seems at variance with an honest interpretation after diligent study. The temptation writers of commentaries face is to comment on everything, even if in some instances no such commentary is warranted. Occasionally the commentator's desire to convey information outpaces his understanding of the passage. The temptation also exists to allegorize passages that seem to defy belief.
A case in point is found in the book of the Bible called "Song of Songs." Quite frequently this book is allegorized to be symbolic of the union of Christ and His Church. While this may not be unfaithful to the Scripture this practice does tend to overlook the obvious celebration of human sexuality that is enjoyed by the main characters. But maintaining that the "Song of Songs" is no more than such a celebration may be as much an injustice to the text as it would be to maintain that it is no more than an allegory.
It is important to remember, therefore, that God does not restrict correct interpretation to the commentators but to those who honestly seek to discover what God is saying in the Scripture. Just be absolutely certain that you are making an honest attempt at interpretation rather than seeking support for your preconceived ideas. Many commentators have much of great value to share with the Bible student but we must stay clear of the trap of allowing their interpretation to overwhelm our own. Treat a commentator as you would a discussion of a Bible passage with an other, as a sounding board for your ideas and conclusions but with a willingness to have your mind changed or the courage to remain firm on an honest interpretation. Keep in mind that your interpretation of the Bible is also a commentary of sorts and is subject to the same benefits and limitations of any other commentary.
How to use this tool
a. Because we have an innate tendency to trust what our teachers tell us to try to gain some idea of the meaning of a passage on your own before consulting a commentary. This way you will be able to evaluate your conclusions against those of the commentary and minimize the risk of simply accepting what the commentary says without question.
b. As commentators will often have differing perspectives on a given passage it is a good idea to compare commentaries against each other for more balanced research as well as to guard against potential false teaching.
c. Commentaries also differ in style. A devotional commentary, such as that by Matthew Henry, will look at a passage from a different viewpoint than a theological commentary, such as that by John Gill. Being aware of the style of the commentary you use will help you to get the most out of it.
An excellent commentary is Matthew Henry's Commentary
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 1)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 2)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 3)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 4)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 5)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 6)
Since we live in a time removed, at best, by twenty centuries from that of the writers of the Bible it is almost impossible for us to react to the Bible's teaching as did the early believers. Our culture, our lifestyles, even our way of thought, all are radically different from what was normal in the days when the Bible was being written. Some tools that can help us to better understand what life was like back then and how the Bible would have been received are books that tell us about the culture of the day. Bible handbooks are a basic tool of this category and Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. are more advanced devices serving the same purpose. What are really useful, however, are books that illustrate in detail the way in which life was lived back in Bible times as they can help bridge the gap of years and allow you to, as much as possible, pick up on the finer points of ancient culture. While we can never enjoy an intimacy with the culture of the times of the Bible as its inhabitants did such resources can serve to minimize the bias our own cultural experience has upon our study.
Since languages change over time no-one can have a complete grasp of even their native language. It is highly recommended that you make use of a dictionary of your native language, or the language of the other Bible study tools you are using so that words with which you are unfamiliar or which may have dual meanings or which may have had their meaning changed since the word was first used may be properly understood. Most modern translations employ common speech, especially those of the Dynamic Equivalence and Paraphrase methods of translation, and as a consequence, you may not require a dictionary of your language at every Bible study but keep one handy for those times when a word you encounter ends up surprising or puzzling you.
Use Bible reference books to increase your understanding of the Bible. Recommend buying a Bible map book online with history and culture included to use with reading any book of the Bible. In any type study method you choose, having a map, history and culture of that time period as you are reading makes God's journey through the Bible come alive.
Knowing a bit about the life and times, history and culture of people in Bible lands can be fascinating and very helpful. You can also for free use our maps, archaeology and Bible Lands online or download for free and print out and keep a copy in your Bible.
The Bible Atlas (PDF Download)
Maps and Figures (PDF Download)
Smith Bible Atlas (Read online on our sister website)
Bible Times Maps (Read online on our sister website)
Biblical Times Maps (Read online on our sister website)
With the advent of inexpensive personal computers, many of the above tools have been migrated into software applications that can take advantage of the incredible speed of information processing and retrieval of these devices. Most Bible study programs come equipped with the tools mentioned above but it is always a good idea to confirm this before you buy a given product. A well designed Bible study program makes it possible to perform an amazing amount of study in a much more efficient manner than would be possible with books and paper.
An added advantage of such software lies in the ability to perform complex word and phrase searches such as finding all verses that contain the word "Jesus" but do not contain the word "Christ;" a capability that is very difficult to implement using any other tools. Bible software can range from packages costing several hundreds of dollars to those that may be distributed freely.
a. My preferred Bible study software is "e-Sword" which consists of hundreds of megabytes of material, most of which is free and of very high quality. This program is constantly being improved for ease of use and additional modules are freely available at a multitude of internet sites.
b. An other free electronic Bible of very high quality is the "Online Bible" which contains a slightly different set of features and user interface than the "Online Bible" but which is equally functional. Many of its features are unique and truly valuable. Both "e-Sword" and the "Online Bible" also contain extensive maps, charts and images to enhance your study and understanding of the Bible.
c. Logos is the name of a commercial software package with an extremely good reputation and which is available in several price ranges with a corresponding range of features.
d. Very highly recommended freeware application is Olive Tree. With a wide variety of modules and functionality.
e. If you own a Pocket PC you will be very well served by the Pocket PC version of e-Sword. I am using this on my own Pocket PC as my primary devotional and mobile Bible study tool. I cannot recommend Pocket e-Sword highly enough.
f. One final program I would like to recommend is "The Scripture Memory System." Created by Stephen Simpson "The Scripture Memory System" is a program designed to help you systematically memorize portions of Scripture. Though not a Bible study tool per se "The Scripture Memory System" is a valuable tool to help you to keep the word of God on your mind at all times and there is no better way to come to an understanding of the Bible than to meditate upon it.
The Sword Project (Cross Wire Bible Society)
Bible Pro for Windows
The Olive Tree Bible App
ESV CrossWay - Bible App
Blue Letter Bible
Logos Bible Study and Reading
Word search Starter
Bible App for Kids
An open and willing heart. Without this most important tool, we will never profit from our study, no matter how much we may learn. We must be willing to be taught when ever we approach the Bible, allowing it to be an instrument of change in our lives rather than bending it to support our treasured ideas. The Word of God possesses great power but only if it is studied honestly and with a willingness to allow God to speak through it to us. As we read the Bible we must constantly be thinking of what the Bible is telling us, not what we want it to tell us.