How to Study the Bible: Picking a Bible


I was weaned on the KJV. In college, the NIV and NASB came out, and the NIV quickly took over the Church of Christ market. I now use the ESV almost exclusively. Here’s why —

* The KJV and the New King James Version are based on a seriously flawed Greek text, being the best text available in 1611. But that text, the Textus Receptus, was based on texts no older than the 13th Century. We now have nearly complete New Testament manuscripts dating from the Fourth Century and books of the NT going back to the Second Century. Why on earth would anyone use a translation based on a text known to be flawed?

* The NIV is fine for most purposes, but when I discuss Romans or Galatians, I find myself having to constantly re-translate to get the text close enough to the Greek to have an intelligent conversation about faith and works. And the most conservative Church of Christ preachers delight in preaching against the NIV (not really sure why) — making it hard for me to be persuasive to that community when I use the NIV. But they love the ESV, which is a very fine translation that I rarely need to correct.

* The ESV can be downloaded to your smartphone for free. The Kindle version is free, too.  I love the willingness of the publisher to get the ESV to the public at low cost.

* The New Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible are excellent as well, but I just like the ESV a little better.

* I detest paraphrases, such as The Message and The Living Bible, in part because the English is so often clichéd and just bad writing. But I have friends who love these translations. I just wouldn’t use them for serious study. Far too often the translators take difficult passages and make them easy — which is not entirely honest to the reader.

* I don’t like any translation done by one man. No one man is that smart. Committee work is always better — less biased, more accurate.

* I like the NET Bible, especially the translator notes. This was originally electronic only but now can be had in print.

* I love a multi-column Bible with multiple translations. I used to carry a combined KJV, NIV, Greek interlinear (guaranteed to help you win every argument in Bible class; just say, “According to the Greek here ….”). But such a resource is pointless if you don’t know a little Greek. Maybe more helpful would be a NKJV, NIV, Living Bible, and the Message parallel.

Bible features

Once you decide on a translation, you need to pick from untold thousands of Bible features. For example,

* Cross-references. To me, good cross references are essential. I use them daily. And I find that older translations often have very weak cross references. ESV has top notch cross references.

* Maps. If you’re a new Bible student, of course you want maps. I love maps.

* Abridged concordance. A concordance lets you look up verses by words. A complete (“exhaustive”) concordance would be too big for a Bible add on, and so publishers give partial concordances. But paper concordances don’t work nearly as well as electronic ones.

Carry a paper Bible but have the same Bible in a searchable electronic format on your smartphone or tablet. Then you won’t need an abridged concordance.

Or just bookmark in your browser. It’s free.

* Topical index. There are two popular topical indices to the Bible, Nave’s and Thompson’s Chain Reference. Nave’s is simply a compilation of Bible verses by topic. It’s almost always printed in the KJV, and it dates from the 19th Century. But it’s still very useful, especially for novices.

Thompson’s is similar except, in the paper version, it gives a topical number by each verse, making it easy to find verses on the same topic. I wore out my NIV/Thompson leather Bible.

I rarely use these resources today, but for about 25 years, they were mainstays of my personal Bible study.

* Tabs. A tabbed Bible has cut outs designed to make it easy to turn to a given book in the Bible. I find that they increase the wear and tear on the pages, and so I don’t get them. But others love the ease of finding Lamentations before anyone else in the class.

* Goldleaf. Gold edges on the Bible make thin pages easier to work with. Essential if the paper is really thin. I try to avoid really thin paper because I’m old and arthritic. But I still like the gold edges — and think it pays for itself over time by reducing wear on the paper. The gold will wear out over time, but it extends the life of the Bible.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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15 Responses to How to Study the Bible: Picking a Bible

  1. Price says:

    Don’t forget the little yellow highlighters that don’t bleed through the pages.. 🙂

  2. John says:

    Jay, I believe progressives like yourself do a very good job in keeping people directed toward serious Bible study. I am convinced that the tendency of some in moving into a bland evangelicalism has brought about a light attitude toward the Bible.

    However, I do wish that many could rekindle an affection for the KJV, which more than a few in liberal circles have done. Not for detailed study of course, but to keep the poetic and creative blood flowing. And this is from one who uses the NRSV. In some evangelical, yet conservative denominations, sermons have become running commentaries with some Greek thrown in from time to time for a little intellectual flavoring. But preaching must be a moving force, which information alone does not accomplish. It must be “music”. I liken good preaching to that song or piece of music that transports the individual beyond self, which is an eternity’s difference from memorizing the rules and mechanics of music. When we listen to an expert classical pianist, we hear heart and soul, not the pecking out of each note. And I truly believe that the regular reading of the KJV, along with other poetic readings which put life experience to music, keeps the soul stirred so that the preacher’s learning does not become simply a sprinkling of details.

    I know the point of your post is the importance of a good Bible for study, but my little detour is one that, I believe, could be helpful for some in keeping the pews filled with life.

  3. John says:

    Just a final note. The above was a long way to say that too many are still patting themselves on the back for leaving the KJV behind, when it is still a beautiful instrument for the people of God.

  4. Marc says:

    Thank you for not mentioning “study Bibles,” which have interpretive notes in the same text as Scripture. One tends to get confused with the other, and quoting from the notes usually ends discussion in a Bible study. It’s only for lazy Bible students.

    And in translations, don’t forget the HCSB, which is an excellent translation. Though many in the CoC would come down on you for using a “Baptist” translation, but it’s more than that.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    John wrote

    I liken good preaching to that song or piece of music that transports the individual beyond self, which is an eternity’s difference from memorizing the rules and mechanics of music. When we listen to an expert classical pianist, we hear heart and soul, not the pecking out of each note.

    Could not agree more.

    And I truly believe that the regular reading of the KJV, along with other poetic readings which put life experience to music, keeps the soul stirred so that the preacher’s learning does not become simply a sprinkling of details.

    I agree to this extent: we need to spend more time in the Bible’s poetic sections – the Psalms, the Prophets, the Magnificat, etc. We are FAR too focused on the prose and so we are starving our souls.

    But I find the ESV really quite good in the poetic sections. I’m not going to try to argue you out of the KJV. I just think you should be aware of how good the modern translations have gotten to be.

    (Isa 61:1-4 ESV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

    (Isa 61:1-4 KJV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; 2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; 3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified. 4 And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.

    Similar, but compare KJV “acceptable year of the LORD” to “the year of the LORD’s favor” ESV
    KJV “trees of righteousness” to “oaks of righteousness” ESV
    KJV “build the old wastes” to “build up the ancient ruins” ESV

    To me, in passages such as this one, ESV is actually more eloquent. I’m sure there are examples that cut the other way, but in this case I think the greater eloquence comes from what is actually a better translation. “Year of the Lord’s favor” is much superior to “acceptable year.”

    So I find the ESV has more magisterial language than many translations.

  6. Jay Guin says:


    I’m not familiar with the HCSB. I distrust a translation written for single denomination. Here’s the same passage I compared in my comment to John —

    (Isa 61:1-4 CSBO) The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and freedom to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the LORD, to glorify Him. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore the former devastations; they will renew the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

    It’s very similar to the ESV. But compare

    Holman “crown of beauty” to “beautiful headdress” ESV
    Holman “splendid clothes” to ” garment of praise” ESV

    KJV has “beauty” but the Hebrew refers to a head covering, such as a turban, so only the ESV translates accurately, and “crown” in the Holman implies royalty, which is not in the text. is a thoughtful review showing Baptist bias in some passages.

    In general, I think we get a better product from translations with a broader base of translators. See also, which points out how few of the translators come from traditions with non-Baptist roots.

  7. Cathy M. says:

    I’ve had trouble with when I had no wifi and poor cell signal. For Android devices, there’s an app called AndBible that has pretty much every free translation available, maps, dictionaries, commentaries, Strong’s, and more. There’s a nice “compare translations” feature, though I wish it would let you do 2-3 verses instead of just one at a time.

  8. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. I just found BibleGateway for iOS. Free. Doesn’t require continuous connection with Internet. Lots of free translations and other tools.

  9. Joe B says:

    First the Bible was never meant to be read as prose or just for the literary beauty it is a story not a play or sonnet. At its core it is revealing the nature of God through a narrative. The Tyndale bible was actually the first English translation not the King James. So it is only by the default of historical consequence that the King James even came into existence. To me the Bible should be translated to be readable first and foremost. No one should have to have a high level of literacy to read it and grasp its core message. If we want to read from the King James so it sounds pretty and dated like we are at a play from Shakespeare then that’s fine but it brings no deeper meaning to the core of the narrative of God and it’s gospel and in fact can be counter intuitive if the audience does not have the context of 17th English Lit.
    To me the NLT, NCV, NRSV, and ESV accomplish the core of translating the oldest copies of manuscripts into a readable version for the average person of average literacy whose first language is English.
    Also I like the application bibles and here is why. We tend to make discipleship as Christians disproportionately academic rather than incarnational when it should be the other way around. Even if you don’t agree with the suggested things to do after reading an application bible at least it stirs your mind to think about eventually living out the story we are reading.

  10. Alabama John says:

    I like the KJV as its letters were written to be read aloud. I’ll bet the audiences couldn’t wait to hear them.

    I don’t think the letters were dissected word for word, compared one against the other and debated as much back then. Simple love for God and desire to please even if misunderstood was enough.

    Christian numbers were growing and spreading unbelievably fast by their simplicity and were not losing ground like today when we are so much more educated.

  11. James says:

    +1 on the ESV recommendation, which I’ve left the NIV for, and for the same Romans/Galatians related issues you have.

    And, if you’re looking for the Big Green Egg equivalent of Bibles, you might check out RL Allan, Cambridge Clarion, or Schuyler Bibles. Pricey, but they have that heirloom-handed-to-your-grandchildren quality that used to be more standard. Few mass-market Bibles seem to hold up long enough with heavy use to be handed down.

  12. Dwight says:

    I actually prefer my NKJV as it retains the language of the KJV without the King’s English thees and thous and also incorporates much of the other text as reference.

  13. Chais says:

    I enjoy using It has some functions that Biblegateway doesn’t have. When it comes to the the bibles I use regularly I like the NIV and NASB, though I carried an ESV version for ten years and still enjoy it. I particularly like the 2011 NIV for its advancement in using leading experts in computational linguistics and the “Bank of English” word database. In the past we have been left to very rudimentary methods of translating meaning.

  14. R.J. says:

    @Joe B, I agree wholeheartedly!

  15. Royce says:

    I agree with you Jay about the ESV. I never liked the NIV and never used one on a regular basis. I opted for some years to use the NKJV until the ESV was introduced. I was very curious about the men who translated the ESV and their philosophy of translation. What I learned satisfied my desire for a “word for word” translation vs a “dynamic equivalent” like the NIV.

    I use Biblegateway on my PC and my smart phone almost exclusively and have had no issues with either that were not easily overcome. Biblegateway also has included for your use, several good, dependable, commentaries on most passages which can be very helpful, especially for novices.

    I’ll finish by suggesting something I started doing a few years ago that has been extremely good for me. I will pull up a selected section of Scripture (usually a chapter or a book, at a minimum a long paragraph) and I read that section with all notes, references, etc turned off. I am left with only the text before me. I ask God to open it to me and I read and read again and again trying to get the meaning God intends for me. Only after I have completed that process do i then see what others have found in that text. I don’t use commentaries as much as I do contemporary scholars. I will often google the text, comma and a person’s name and find what they have taught about the text. Then I will carefully read the applicable references to see if they reinforce my conclusions.

    It is very satisfying to dig into a text and after a few days find that someone really smart found the same truths there that I have found myself. It is amazing how easy it is to read over a text and completely miss some important teaching simply because the text seems so very familiar. In the end the Holy Spirit is the teacher. Using this method has helped me very much and I recommend it.

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