Study Bibles have been around almost as long as Bibles have been printed in English. While Christianity has long been considered a “religion of the book” (a phrase that not everybody likes), the Bible isn’t easy to understand. It’s so complex that the first universities (which emerged from monastic and cathedral schools) regularly taught Bible classes. With the Reformation and the Protestant focus on “the Bible alone” (sola scriptura is the fancy term for it), laity were encouraged to read the Bible. Problem was, by then the Bible was nearly a millennium-and-a-half old and difficult to understand.
Study Bibles arose out of the recognition that, even with a Bible in your own language, comprehension of that Bible couldn’t be taken for granted. Most readers had never been to the Holy Land. Places and customs that appear without explanation in the Bible were obscure. More than just the original languages hampered the modern reader. The solution was to offer Bibles with additional material.
The King James Bible, originally, had very little in the way of study helps. This was intentional. The Church of England had problems with some of the apparatus that appeared in earlier English Bibles. Today, King James Study Bibles are very popular among some Christian readers. In fact, a large portion of all Bibles purchased every year are Study Bibles.
It’s natural to wonder why, if Study Bibles are so useful, they didn’t appear earlier in history. If they’re so good to have, why weren’t they available in the beginning?
Individual reading of the Bible by the laity hasn’t always been possible, or even encouraged, among Christians. Literacy rates, while difficult to measure, were likely not high in the early years of the movement. Not only that, but the actual “final form” of the Bible wasn’t settled in even a basic way until about the fourth century CE. Nobody thought to write down how decisions were made about the final cut of the Bible, but a rough consensus emerged around this time. It was also the period of the early church gatherings to deal with troubling differences of opinion. The Ecumenical Councils, beginning with the First Council of Nicea, were concerned with unified church doctrine. Even the learned didn’t always agree on how to interpret the Bible.
Bible reading among the laity, when it became feasible, was not always desirable. As the Reformation itself demonstrates, different readers form different interpretations. Protestants, with their confidence in sola scriptura, encouraged believers to read the Bible for themselves. Looking at the number of Protestant denominations that have emerged (and continue to emerge), it’s clear that opinions on the Bible still differ widely. Five centuries after the Reformation, most people still find the Bible hard to understand.
The result has been the florescence of Study Bibles. Here’s a list of six fun tidbits about Study Bibles:
1. The Geneva Bible, an early English translation half-a-century older than the King James, was a Study Bible. It contained introductions to each book of the Bible, cross-references, maps, illustrations, tables, and indices. The Bible of the early English colonists to America was the Geneva Bible.
2. Catholic Bibles, from the Douay–Rheims translation on, have generally been Study Bibles. The Douay-Rheims Bible had extensive marginal notes. The tradition continued into the Jerusalem Bible, and then the New American Bible, where introductions and notes (respectively) precede and follow the biblical text.
3. The Scofield Reference Bible of 1909 was likely the most influential Study Bible in American history. The Scofield has introduced the dispensationalist outlook to generations of conservative Christians. If you’ve heard of the Rapture, you’ve met a form of dispensationalism.
4. Study Bibles are available for many faiths. Study Bibles are produced for Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Jewish readers. Many Study Bibles are non-denominational, or interdenominational, intended for use by both religious and secular readers.
5. Study Bibles are also called “Reference Bibles” and “Annotated Bibles.” What marks a Bible as a “Study Bible” is extra material to help the reader understand the biblical text. Every major Bible publishing house offers at least one form of Study Bible.
6. Study Bibles have inspired study editions of other religious texts. Two study editions of the Qur’an have recently appeared and this points to a growing interest in annotated editions of other holy books. As long as there are sacred texts, help understanding them will remain welcome.
Featured image credit: Bible by condesign. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.