So far in Common Sense Bible Study we’ve looked at setting up for your study time, how not to get lost in irrelevant theological weeds, a few tips on how to read the Bible in its historical context, and some essential Bible study tools.
In this installment, we’ll look at a number of other Bible study tools of varying importance, starting with those I believe to be most important and working our way down to “eh”. I want to let you know what’s available without boring you to tears, so I’ll try to keep this brief.
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Bible commentaries contain verse-by-verse (or at least passage-by-passage) discussions of the whole Bible or of individual books. They can be very helpful for understanding the meaning of difficult passages–and even many passages that appear to be simple– but remember that they are only the teachings of men, and different teachers can have very different interpretations of the same passages. No commentary has the same authority as the original Scriptures themselves. Just as with Bible translations, I recommend that you don’t rely too heavily on any one. Contrast and compare.
Here are some commentaries I recommend (not saying I agree with everything they contain):
- Any of Tim Hegg’s commentaries on individual books.
- Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (included with e-Sword)
- John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible (included with e-Sword)
Bible Dictionaries & Encyclopedias
Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias define words and concepts found in the Bible. Pretty straightforward. They are especially good for identifying people and place names. Most Bible apps include several of each, and there are many more that you can access for free on the Internet. If you prefer hard copy, here are a few good options:
- Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words
- Hollman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
- Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 2 volumes
- Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible
What kind of culture did the Hebrews leave behind in Egypt and what did they find in Canaan? How did the tense relationship between Rome and Jerusalem affect the Sanhedrin’s treatment of Jesus?
Histories can provide important background and contextual information for understanding the Biblical texts. Unfortunately, many historians of western civilization ignore the Hebrew contribution and treat the Bible as fiction, despite it’s having proved itself to be more reliable than any other history book that has ever been written. There are some good ones out there, though. Here are some that I think you will find interesting and useful:
- Anything by Alfred Edersheim
- Israel & the Nations by F.F. Bruce
- A History of Israel by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
- Josephus: The Complete Works
Bible atlases contain maps of the lands in which the events of the Bible took place. A good atlas will include information about people groups, political contexts, international conflicts, and the movements of individuals and groups of people at various points in history. Most hard copy Bibles have some maps in the back, but these don’t come close to providing the level of detail that a real atlas does. You can find a lot of great geographical information on the Internet, but it can be hard to determine the reliability of any particular source. Here are a few hard copy atlases that should be pretty accurate and detailed:
Study Bibles are usually popular translations of the Bible interspersed with commentary. I made this a separate category from Bible Commentaries because a novice Bible student might mistake them for being more authoritative than other commentaries because the text is set side-by-side with the Bible, and yet they tend to be less rigorous and less reliable for that same reason. Keep in mind when reading any study Bible, that it is only commentary. I would avoid study Bibles with a pop focus, such as those written specifically for women, teens, or athletes. Here are a few that I think are better than most:
Lectionaries provide lists of Bible passages to be read on specific dates or events. In my opinion, their greatest value lies in leading the reader to thematic connections between different passages that might not be obvious at first. Jewish tradition pairs a reading from the first 5 books of the Bible (this reading is called a Parsha) to a related passage in the Prophets (called a Haftarah). The second passage illustrates or expands on the meaning of the first. Many Christian denominations use lectionaries as well. If a lectionary includes liturgy, devotionals, or commentary, it could be a problem, but if it only pairs related Bible passages, it could make for some very interesting study material.
Devotionals are collections of short essays on Biblical topics, usually intended to be read daily. Their quality, value, and depth are all over the map. There are great devotionals and terrible devotionals. There is probably more devotional-type literature published than any other. I’m confident that you will find some great content in these:
A harmony is an attempt to create a single, chronological text from different accounts of the same events. For example, a gospel harmony combines the narratives of all four gospels into a unified, chronologically arranged account. Such a work necessarily involves some extra-biblical interpretation, because there are ambiguities in the original texts that require making some assumptions about the author’s intent to make them line up with the other accounts. I have only seen harmonies made of the gospels, but I’m sure someone must have attempted harmonies of the Torah and the historical books of the Old Testament as well. You can find them on the Internet or in book stores.
In general, I view harmonies as curiosities and little more. They never seem to deliver the value or clarity one would expect. On the other hand, you might learn a lot from compiling your own.
You can probably find hundreds of examples for each of these types of resources. I recommend researching the authors and their likely biases before ascribing much authority to them, and, of course, weigh everything they say against Scripture. You are unlikely to ever find an author or organization who agrees with you on every important detail, so don’t reject a tool just because it contains something you don’t like. Look at the whole work and decide for yourself whether you can learn enough from it to balance its potential errors. In time, you might even discover that that the author wasn’t wrong, but you were.
Pray. Read. Study. Meditate. Pray some more. May you be blessed and may God be glorified in everything that you do.