Q&R: What Study Bible Should I Get?

Short answer

Get either the NIV or NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible OR the Common English Bible (CEB) Study Bible.

Longer answer

My 4 go-to "committee translations" are CEB, NRSV, NIV, and NLT. One nice thing about being a Bible college and seminary student is that you get to know the real, live people who translate the Bible and see a bit of how the dead-language-to-English-sausage is made. No translation is "perfect," and "word-for-word" translations don't actually exist.

(See this video for a fascinating example of how the ESV translation team dealt with the word "slave." Also, note the incredible lack of diversity in the room...)

The Common English Bible (CEB) aims for understandability and is willing to sacrifice traditional translation for fresh understanding (Example: they translate "Son of Man" to "the human one.")

The NRSV tries to maintain the poetry and grandeur or the KJV and RSV, while moving to modern translation practices.

The NIV is a great middle-of-the-road translation known for its understandability and inoffensiveness.

The NLT too often gets maligned for being like a paraphrase, but the scholarship behind it is excellent; they knew what they were doing when they made the translation choices they did.

In terms of Study Bibles, the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is great for filling in all those little details that get lost in the sands of time. The editors and note-writers put in some wonderful essays and sidebars. You'll get a whirlwind seminary education if you bother reading all the notes and essays.

The CEB Study Bible is a great mix of reverence for Scripture, while still grappling with the difficulties of an ancient text with a myriad of perspectives and problems. The essays in the back ("The Authority of Scripture," "The Bible's Unity," "How We Got the Bible") are alone worth the price of the tome.

Notice above that I put "committee translations", because there's an entirely different category of Bible translations done by a single author. The Message, by Eugene Peterson, is the most famous of those. It too is often called a "paraphrase," but it is not a paraphrase. It is a word-by-word, from the original languages, translation of the Scriptures. Paraphrases, technically speaking, take existing English translations and then paraphrase them into less formal English.

Other good examples of single-author translations are John Goldingay's The First Testament, N.T. Wright's The New Testament for Everyone, Hart's The New Testament, Sarah Ruden's The Gospels, or Robert Alter's magisterial The Hebrew Bible (IN THREE FREAKING VOLUMES). They are wonderful for sitting down and reading in large chunks—a way of reading Scripture that I think we practice far too little. You get this breath of fresh air reading familiar texts and thinking, "Wait, have I actually read this before?" It's a category of Scripture reading that not many are familiar with, but it's worth investing in one or two (or borrowing from a college/seminary library) and reading through, say, the Gospel of Mark in one sitting (as it was originally intended!).

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC