A Guide to Study Bibles
February 13, 2015
On a personal note, blogging will continue to be slow for the next several weeks. I am currently in the middle of an internship, in addition to my library job at Union Presbyterian Seminary and classwork at said seminary. I work six days a week. I am rather exhausted. Woe is me!
Roman Catholic biblical scholarship is doing a lot of things right. Ever since Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943, Catholic scholars have pursued the rigorous enterprise of critical scholarship with vigor. And, yet, they have done so with sensitivity to theological concerns within a dogmatic framework. Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer are two of the most prominent names in this regard, as demonstrated in their volumes for the Anchor Bible and elsewhere. Brown will be too liberal for many of you, but he is a remarkable scholar, with a theologically adept mind.
The NAB was commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and you can hear it at every mass in the United States. The other favorite translation among American Catholics is the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), published by Ignatius Press. I love the RSV, but I have come to appreciate the NAB more and more. It may lack a certain elegance, but I appreciate its “punchiness.” See Psalm 10, for example. But the significant advantage for the student is the study material. The book introductions are consistently good, and the study notes are genuinely helpful. The overall perspective is “moderate critical,” much like the Protestant New Interpreter’s Study Bible. See the New Jerusalem Bible below for a similar study Bible from Roman Catholic scholars.
It has many naysayers, but I am a fan of the NIV, especially the 2011 revision (see a related post here). This study Bible is the evangelical standard. As such, it is minimally concerned with appropriating historical critical research, except in an adverse position. When it comes to the Pentateuch, for example, Moses is the author, albeit with some recognition of later redaction. When it comes to Isaiah, the similarities among the parts overrule the differences (e.g, “Holy One of Israel” throughout the book), yielding a single author. And, to give another example, the book of Daniel is not a species of late AD apocalyptic, intertestamental literature. In each case, appeal is made to the New Testament’s use of the OT and how traditional authorship is ascribed.
For many people, this would be enough to dismiss the NIV Study Bible. But that is a shame. The NIV Study Bible is beneficial to one and all. As you would expect from an evangelical study Bible, the NIV-SB does a marvelous job of systematizing the disparate material in the biblical canon. Agree or disagree, it is helpful, especially for the pastor. Compared to some other study Bibles, it lacks depth in the notes, and it is certainly “biased” toward evangelical theology, of course. The 2011 NIV-SB also includes a wealth of charts (in color!) that will serve every student well.
The NISB is a distillation of The New Interpreter’s Bible, one of the most important commentary series on the market and the successor to the widely utilized The Interpreter’s Bible. There is also the accompaniment, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, which is also an academic standard. And all of this derived from the “biblical theology” movement of the mid-twentieth century, with Interpretation as the flagship and leading journal for mainline Protestants facilitating both critical and theological analysis of the Bible. Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond continues to house Interpretation. And there is also a commentary series, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. This is a favorite among preachers, and it includes the likes of Brueggemann on Genesis and Thomas Long on Hebrews.
So, the “Interpretation” enterprise is vast, and it is much beloved among mainline Protestants. It represents the best of “moderate critical” scholarship. This means that the theology of the NISB is largely congenial to “neo-orthodoxy” of the 20th century, but it also features aspects of liberation and feminist theology, also rather congenial to mainline Protestantism of today. Personally, I have a mixed reaction to the NISB. It is certainly worth owning and worth frequently consulting, but I think that the NAB (above) and NJB (below) are superior on the whole.
As with all of the mainline Protestant study Bibles, the translation is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I am not overly fond of the NRSV for mostly stylistic reasons, but it represents some of the best of biblical scholarship in the late 20th century (including the indomitable Bruce Metzger at Princeton) and is the academic standard.
This is an astonishingly good study Bible. The book introductions are alone worth the price of the volume and should be published independently as an introductory survey of the Bible. Like the NAB, the NJB is a Roman Catholic translation of the Bible, featuring academic introductions and study notes. (Note: the “Reader’s Edition” lacks the study material.) But most importantly, these academic features are also combined with theological commitments, much like the NAB. For example, the study note for Romans 9:5 (“…Christ who is above all, God, blessed forever. Amen.”) is a splendid account of the divinity of Christ within the doctrine of the Trinity. I do not know of any other study Bible that combines such theological depth with academic-critical rigor.
While the NJB is a Roman Catholic Bible, it could easily be called an ecumenical Bible. Most of the mainline Protestants would be comfortable with it, and I would encourage evangelical Protestants to utilize it as well. There are only a few instances where peculiarly Roman Catholic “bias” could be detected. For example, the study note for Matthew 1:25 allows for the ever-virginity of Mary: “The text is not concerned with the period that followed and, taken by itself, does not assert Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is assumed by the remainder of the Gospel and by the tradition of the Church.” The NAB says basically the same. But this is not significant. I think the Epiphanian view is plausible — why else was Mary entrusted to the beloved disciple and not to Jesus’ “brothers”? (John 19:26-27). So, I am not concerned with this particular “bias.” More importantly, the controversial matters on justification in Romans and Galatians are notably unbiased and fair to everyone concerned, if you sufficiently understand the complexities involved.
The NOAB is the long-standing standard in academic study Bibles, widely utilized in both mainline Protestant seminaries and secular universities. This was the Bible we were assigned at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The original edition (with the RSV translation) is still in print, and it is considered a classic, thanks in large part to the influence and labor of Bruce Metzger. Metzger also supervised both the NRSV translation (1989) and the revision of the NOAB. But later additions of the NOAB have gone beyond Metzger, who was a moderate-critical, neo-orthodox Presbyterian scholar. The editors of the third and fourth editions of the NOAB, Michael D. Coogan and Marc Z. Brettler, have incorporated a decidedly secular and non-theological perspective throughout the NOAB. This is my opinion, after using both the third and fourth editions extensively. Nonetheless, the NOAB remains a valuable resource for understanding the mainline academic/liberal perspective on the Bible.
However, The HarperCollins Study Bible (NRSV) appears to be a better resource for grappling with the theological implications of critical research, from the perspective of liberal mainline Protestantism. But, I am not as familiar with the HCSB, so I have to reserve judgment.
Other Study Bibles
There are several other study Bibles worth mentioning. The NLT Study Bible is very good, and in certain respects it is even superior to the NIV Study Bible. More than the latter, it gives greater recognition to the mainstream, as in providing the “lower chronology” of Moses and the Exodus (13th century BC) set beside the higher chronology. Yet, it lacks many of the features that make the NIV-SB special, and it is an inferior translation.
Also on the evangelical side, we should recognize The Reformation Study Bible, edited by R. C. Sproul. Next month, the RSB is scheduled to release its latest edition. This is the traditional Calvinist study Bible, par excellence. It first appear in the mid-1990’s as The New Geneva Study Bible, in the NKJV translation only. It then expanded to the ESV translation, which is the sole translation of the new edition. There is also an NIV edition, The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, edited by Richard L. Pratt and based upon the Sproul edition of the RSB. The NIV edition features more expansive study notes. And most importantly, the NIV edition includes the Reformed confessions (Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards) at the end and footnoted throughout the text.
The ESV Study Bible is easily the most talked about study Bible to emerge in the last decade. This is thanks in large part to the wide publicity of Crossway and enthusiastic support from leaders within the “New Calvinism,” such as John Piper. The theology is basically the same as The Reformation Study Bible, but I find the RSB to be more theologically in-depth and elegant. Yet, the ESV-SB features more material and more study aids, much like the latest NIV-SB.
On the mainline Protestant side, there is The Discipleship Study Bible, which appears to be very similar to the NISB (above). It comes from the same “Interpretation” group of scholars, with pastor-scholars like Thomas Long, and is published by Westminster John Knox.
Alright, I think that is enough for now! We have a wealth of study Bibles in the English-speaking world: evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic. And each of the above have something worthwhile to offer us all.