How to Choose a Bible

A stack of Bibles

So You Want to Get a Bible 

Choosing a Bible ought to be a simple process.  So should choosing a loaf of bread.  But these days, at least in the United States, the array of choices for both bread and the Bible can be mystifying. 

If you want a language other than English, it's not a problem.  The choices are much more limited.  The same is true if your tradition is either Roman Catholic or Orthodox.  The New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible are the most popular with Catholics.  Many appreciate the Douay-Rheims, which is the earliest translation from the Latin.  There is also a Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version.  For the Orthodox, nothing is quite as good as the Septuagint for the Old Testament and the original Greek for the New Testament.  But if your Greek is shaky, there is a new Orthodox Study Bible in English to help you.

For English-speaking Protestants, however, the choice of Bible can be daunting.  No longer do you just pick a binding and a color.

To help you sort it all out, ask yourself why you want a Bible at this particular time. Below are some common reasons for wanting a Bible and some suggestions to help you choose accordingly.

WHY DO YOU WANT A BIBLE RIGHT NOW?
     1.  I want to bring my Bible to church to read along during worship.
     2.  I have never really read the Bible and would like to see what it actually says.
     3.  I really want to study the Bible.  I want to know about the writers, the history, the geography, the language.  All of it.
     4.  I want to read the Bible to help me grow spiritually.

WHAT'S THE APOCRYPHA?  SHOULD MY BIBLE HAVE IT?

A WORD ABOUT THE KING JAMES VERSION

 When you have some idea of what you want, click here to see our selection of Bibles.   You can place an order with Amazon.com directly through our website.

 

WHY DO YOU WANT A BIBLE RIGHT NOW?

1.  I want to bring my Bible to church to read along during worship.

Although many churches provide Bibles in the pews, lots of people still want to bring their own.  If you are new to the Bible and want one for this purpose, ask your pastor what version is being used in worship and get that.  This will avoid the confusion of hearing one thing and reading a different set of words.

Some people, however, like reading along in a different version to note the differences.  If that's you, you'll still need to check what is being used in worship and then pick something else according to the other criteria below.  Be aware that some paraphrases, like Peterson's The Message, do not include verse numbers, so you may be doing some scrambling to find what is being read.

In either case, you will have to become familiar with how to find a passage of Scripture from the citation (e.g. John 3:16).  While churches with Bibles in the pews will often give you the page number from which they are reading, that will probably not be the same number in your own Bible. 

 

2.  I have never really read the Bible and would like to see what it actually says.

The Bible was originally written in two languages:  Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament.  So, the first thing to realize is that unless you are deeply familiar with the classical forms of both those languages, you are looking for a translation of some kind.  I can only speak here to English translations, but that is also the language where the choices are the most varied.

The next thing to understand is that any and all translations of the Bible represent a certain degree of interpretation by the translators.  The ancient Greek and Hebrew of the Bible are no longer spoken in the world today.  The old manuscripts don't include punctuation or sometimes even spaces between the words.  The Hebrew doesn't include the vowels and doesn't distinguish between past and present tense.  There are words whose meanings are uncertain and words that could mean several different things, depending on the context and the attitude of the author.

Scholars work long and hard to get it right, but one of the reasons you have "revised" versions of various translations is because new information has come to light, either because of new archaeological finds or new research. 

All translations are interpretations.  At the Massachusetts Bible Society we recommend getting a translation that has been worked on by a large group of scholars.  While it is impossible to remove all bias, the larger groups of translators are less likely to be overly partisan.  We tend to recommend the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or Today's New International Version (TNIV) for that reason.

For those fascinated by the differences, there are parallel Bibles that will give you two or more translations side by side.  And for those who are learning the ancient biblical languages but still need some help, there are interlinear Bibles that will put an English translation along with the Greek or Hebrew.

A note here about paraphrases.  A translation attempts to render a text from one language into another as exactly as possible.  With a translation you can ask, "I wonder what the original Hebrew was for that word?" and find an answer.  A paraphrase tries to give the general meaning of a text in contemporary language.  Where the original language might have one word, a paraphrase might spin the meaning out to a whole paragraph.  In some cases, like Clarence Jordan's famous Cotton Patch paraphrases, contemporary places and situations are substituted for the original.  In telling about the temptation of Jesus, for example, Jordan has the devil take Jesus up on top of First Church in Atlanta!  Currently the paraphrase by Eugene Peterson called "The Message" is very popular.  The Living Bible is another example of a popular paraphrase.

A paraphrase can be a wonderful way to hear a familiar text in new ways.  They are very easy to read and can be a good way to stimulate discussion.  Pastors will often read from a paraphrase in a sermon to help make connections from biblical to contemporary times.  But a paraphrase should not be used for study.  When a passage is paraphrased instead of translated, you are getting the opinion of the person doing the paraphrase to a much greater degree than is evident in a strict translation.  As long as you bear that in mind, a paraphrase can be a rewarding tool, but they should be used with caution.

 

3.  I really want to study the Bible.  I want to know about the writers, the history, the geography, the language.  All of it.

Then you want a study Bible.  A good study Bible has an introduction to each book of the Bible telling you about the date and authorship of the book and something about the historical incidents to which the book refers.  Some will also talk about the literary style of the book and even give you an outline.

A study Bible will have many notes within its pages, usually at the bottom of the page.  Sometimes the notes take up more of the page than the text!  These will help clarify the meaning of a word, translate weights and measures into something more familiar, give an indication of other ways a word might be translated, and refer you to other passages in the Bible that are similar or that are quoted in the passage.

Study Bibles will also have maps and charts, and sometimes a concordance to help you look up a passage when you only remember a word or two.

When selecting a study Bible, be aware that all those extra notes and information also contain the theological biases of the people who wrote them.  Like with the translation recommendations above, we recommend notes compiled by a large group of scholars rather than a single individual or small group for that reason.  The study Bibles associated with the New International Version will have notes that reflect more conservative theology and the study Bibles associated with the New Revised Standard Version will have notes that reflect more liberal thought. 

There are also Bibles that are designed for a very specific area of study.  There are Bibles that focus on archaeology, for example.

 

4.  I want to read the Bible to help me grow spiritually.

Then you want a devotional Bible.  Unlike the study Bible that gives you notes about the historical context of the Scriptures, a devotional Bible is filled with short devotions and questions that help you think about how a passage might apply in your daily life.  Like with anything else these days, the array is huge.  You can find devotional Bibles for just about every demographic and lifestyle.  There are devotional Bibles for men, women, youth, college students, people of color, those in recovery, mothers, couples, athletes, Catholics, and many more.

To decide what is right for you, go into a bookstore and read some of the sidebar panels in the various devotional Bibles.  More than with either translations or study notes, the life applications of devotional Bibles allow particular agendas to shine.  Especially if you are looking for a devotional Bible for your teens or confirmands, you will want to determine if the messages in those sidebars are ones you want conveyed to your children.

There are two good places to turn in order to see where the Bible you're holding is coming from on social issues.  Look at the devotional material around the first few chapters of Genesis.  Their take on the creation/evolution debate will be a good indicator of whether there will be a strong bias toward either a conservative or liberal position.  Also look at Ephesians 5.  What is said (or not) about the passage saying wives should be submissive to husbands will also let you know whether you will be comfortable considering their other advice.  To see how homosexuality will be handled, check out Romans 1.  If the material around those passages is neutral or well-balanced, chances are the rest of the readings will be as well.  If they indicate a particular point of view, make sure you are comfortable with it.

WHAT'S THE APOCRYPHA?  SHOULD MY BIBLE HAVE IT?

The word "apocrypha" comes from the Greek word meaning things that are hidden away.  The word today refers to books  outside the canon of Scripture that deal with some of the events, people, and places referred to in the biblical texts.  

Aside from the general term of apocryphal writings, however, there is a group of texts that Protestants refer to as The Apocrypha, which designates a group of books and parts of books that Roman Catholics believe are properly part of the canon and Protestants do not.  Catholic Bibles will automatically have these writings included.  Some Protestant Bibles also include them, but you will see a special designation on the Bible that indicates its inclusion. 

When included in a Protestant Bible, the writings are separated from the rest of the text, usually in-between the Old and New Testaments.  Many of the texts would fit into that space historically anyway.  All of them reflect a time before the birth of Christ.  The apocryphal Gospel accounts that have been in the media in recent years are not part of this group.  The Apocrypha we are talking about here is considered Old Testament material.  The Orthodox tradition has its own way of listing and some extra material that the Catholics do not recognize.  Click here for a comparative listing of books in the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions.

At the Massachusetts Bible Society, we heartily recommend that Protestants read The Apocrypha.  While some books contain material that we find problematic (just like in the already accepted texts), there are delightful and instructive stories, wisdom, and history that is important to understanding the culture into which Jesus was born.  All of the early church fathers and mothers considered these books to be Holy Scripture and based their lives and teachings upon them.  Some also find textual evidence that these books were considered by New Testament writers to be part of the Hebrew Scriptures.  You can read one accounting of those findings here.

We believe they should be read and studied by Protestants and Catholics alike and recommend that you either have a Bible that includes them or that you purchase them in a separate volume.

A WORD ABOUT THE KING JAMES VERSION

The King James Version of the Bible was translated in the year 1611 under the authority of (surprise, surprise) King James of England.  That was the Jacobean era and the language of the translation reflects that.  It is the language of Shakespeare, and some even claim that it was Shakespeare himself who turned the translation of the Psalms into the majestic poetry that has become so beloved.  The King James Version is, quite simply, a masterpiece of literature.

The King James Version is not, however, easy to read because it no longer reflects the way we speak.  Words that were common four hundred years ago are no longer in use, and some words that still can be heard on our streets have a vastly different meaning than they once had.  As an example, the word "prevent" in the time of King James meant "to allow, to make a way for."  Psalm 59:10 in the KJV reads that God "will prevent me."  The New International Version, which reflects today's language, translates the same verse "God will go before me."  The meaning of the passage hasn't changed, but most people reading the KJV would misunderstand because we don't use the word "prevent" in that way anymore.  In fact, today it means the opposite!

While we would hate to see the King James Version disappear from ritual use (how do you have a funeral without the KJV of the 23rd Psalm or Christmas without those swaddling clothes and abiding shepherds?), the Massachusetts Bible Society encourages the use of translations with contemporary language for personal study and devotion in order to facilitate understanding.

 

The Massachusetts Bible Society is able to sustain its ministries of Bible Grants, educational events, and nurturing Biblical literacy and open spiritual/theological dialogue through financial contributions from people and organizations such as you.