Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reading the Bible -- Part II: Tools, Helps, and Resources

In Part I of this series (click here) I discussed how the Daily Office and its lectionary can be used as a devotional tool in reading Scripture. A resource such as the Daily Office, or any other daily devotional routine with a set pattern for reading Scripture, can be of great assistance in building a spiritual understanding of the text through the discipline of daily reading and meditating on the word of God. However, it must always be remembered that the Biblical text is an ancient text, created over a lengthy period of time by and for specific groups of people. Unfailingly, we will come across words, idioms, place names, political structures, religious concepts, and other cultural and historical details that simply befuddle us and make no sense. Fortunately, there are many study helps available that help us “crack the code” and enable us to reinterpret the text in order that it may continue to speak to us today.

Study Bibles

First and foremost, every reader of the Bible should own a good Study Bible. While there are many excellent Study Bibles that are edited from a devotional point of view, I tend to discourage people from using these. They often represent the doctrine or theology of either a single individual (or a particular) faith group rather than seeking to unlock the historical, cultural, socio-economic, historico-religious details of the text. The biblical translation you choose will be a matter of personal choice (I will outline the differences of modern translations in the next volume of this series), but I strongly recommend the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version), as the best Study Bibles are available in this translation. Three different Study Bibles come to mind: The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The HarperCollins Study Bible, and The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Again, the choice will be a matter of personal preference. Each contain “critical” study notes on each passage of Scripture. When I say critical, I mean scholarly notes (not notes criticizing the text) rather than devotional notes. Each contain introductions to the books of the Bible, stating the scholarly consensus/lack of consensus on matters regarding the dating, authorship, location of authorship, situation-in-life/time, of the text. Also included are maps, general introductions to various types of biblical texts (e.g. articles on the various genres like apocalyptic, prophetic, wisdom texts, the gospels, letters, etc.), charts and graphs. The New Oxford Annotated is the traditional favourite, having gone through three editions and having long served clergy and scholars alike. Steadily gaining in popularity and usage is the HarperCollins Study Bible, a project of the scholarly guild, The Society of Biblical Literature, and is especially good on social history. Finally, the Interpreters’ Study Bible is based on the multi-volume commentary series of the same name and is a fine new addition.

When choosing which Study Bible is right for you, I suggest the following method: Pick two or three of your favourite passages, look them up and compare the notes on the text. Which do you find the most accessible, the most challenging, which invites further questions and study? Do not simply choose the one that “pleases” you the most, but the one that will draw you deeper. After you have done this with at least a couple of passages you will begin to get and idea which Study Bible you wish to use regularly. Also, examine the maps, introductions, and articles. The average cost of a Study Bible is probably about $60.00-$90.00 Canadian (depending on whether or not you want one with the Apocrypha). Some of the above have been released in soft cover and are less expensive, but I can guarantee that they will not stand up to continuous use. It is better to spend the money and have something that will last.

Bible Dictionaries

A Study Bible is essential and provides a good starting place for a deeper understanding of Scripture. However, you may also wish to have a good Bible Dictionary on hand. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, and The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary are both excellent resources and cost about $75.00 each, Canadian. Many public libraries and most university libraries will have these in their reference sections. When choosing a Bible Dictionary use the same method as choosing a Study Bible, look up the subject (e.g., “parables”) and compare the treatment. Another resources is the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, which at about $65.00 per volume is beyond the means of most, but is the best of the best. You can find it in some larger public libraries and in university libraries. It is intended for in-depth or academic use.

Bible Commentaries

Again, when choosing a Bible Commentary use the same method of selecting a series of favourite passages and comparing the commentary accordingly. A good one-volume Bible Commentary can be procured for about $75.00-$100.00. Once again, Eerdmans and HarperCollins lead the pack with excellent one-volume editions (The Eerdmans Bible Commentary and The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, respectively). To this I might also add the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, which has been for many generations the preeminent one-volume commentary for Roman Catholics. Like the aforementioned one-volume commentaries, The New Jerome is not a devotional commentary but an academic commentary and goes into greater depth than either the Eerdmans or HarperCollins. It is a favourite amongst seminarians and clergy. Any of these editions would be appropriate for someone leading a Bible Study or anyone who wishes to probe more deeply into the historical-critical issues of the text.

There are numerous multi-volume commentary series available. Some are geared to personal study while others are intended for in-depth scholarly work on the biblical texts in their original languages. For devotional use, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series (published by Westminster/John Knox Press) has long been a favourite. It has been updated to some degree, but is beginning to feel a bit dated. The Barclay volumes cover the entire New Testament, while volumes on the Old Testament were later added by noted preachers and scholars. In a similar vein, but more recent and up-to-date, is N.T. Wright’s excellent The Bible for Everyone (titles are Matthew for Everyone, Luke for Everyone, etc.), also published by Westminster/John Knox. Both series run approx. $20-$25 per volume.

Taking it up one level, and useful for leading Bible Studies, preaching, or teaching Bible classes is Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Westminster/John Knox). Each volume divides the text of the particular book of the Bible into chunks that roughly resemble the text as it appears in the liturgy and offers some historical background with ideas for preaching and study. The Interpreters’ Bible (Abingdon Press) also falls into this category. A similar commentary, slightly more academic, is Sacra Pagina from the Liturgical Press, and is intended for Catholic readers. Volumes in these three series run anywhere from $50-$100 ea., depending on size. Eerdmans also has a three-volume commentary on the lectionary readings entitled The Lectionary Commentary available as a set or as individual volumes (aprox. $30 ea). Many churches have a lectionary-based Bible Study and this is an ideal resource for leaders of such studies. The first volume is the first reading (typically from the Old Testament), the second volume is the second reading (mainly the Epistles), while the third volume is the third reading (The Gospels). I have used this resource in my own preaching.

There are a wide selection of in-depth multi-volume academic commentaries that require knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. My favourites are Hermeneia (Fortress Press) and the Anchor Bible (Doubleday) – aprox $75-$125 per volume.


There is an abundance of study material on the web for study of the Bible. While there is much of value, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Frotunately, a Duke University New Testament Scholar has done just that. Mark Goodacre’s New Testament Gateway is a portal site that contains links to the best New Testament sites on the web. You will find all sorts of resources for study at any level. He also runs an informative Blog in which he keeps up with academic and popular developments in biblical studies.

The Oremeus Bible Browser is an online collection of Bible translations and is handy for printing out a portion of the text for study or for the public reading of Scripture.

The Text this Week is an online lectionary resource that provides commentary and study helps of varying quality. It also contains worship and Sunday school aids.

Finding Resources

Many of these resources will be available at your local independent religious bookseller, new or second hand. The web is also a great way to find used copies of otherwise expensive commentaries. Local libraries may have some of these resources and university libraries will certainly have many of them.

When purchasing any resources I strongly recommend avoiding either big box stores or online mega-stores. While you may be able to find some of these resources at these locations, there is nothing better than building a relationship with a knowledgeable independent specialty bookseller who is passionate about the trade. Consider using Augsburg Fortress/Anglican Book Centre or any one of the excellent Diocesan Book Rooms across Canada. For locating out-of-print or used religious texts I can think of no better resource than The Anglican Bibliopole whose proprietors have helped me and many colleagues in ministry on numerous occasions. Please support your local independent religious booksellers – they are your colleagues in ministry!

Next: Choosing the right translation.

Text copyright The Rev. Daniel F. Graves, 2008. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

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