The History of Study Bibles

by Stephen Nichols

In 1560, an exiled group of pastors and theologians made history. They published the first full edition of the Geneva Bible. It was a remarkable feat on many fronts.

These scholars who worked on the Geneva Bible had been leaders of the Reformation in England and Scotland. When “Bloody Mary” took the throne, she threw into reverse the advancing Reformation, taking the nation back to Roman Catholicism. Britain’s Reformers found themselves in prison, martyred, or in exile. Many went to Calvin’s Geneva.

Calvin wasn’t much for idle hands. Florentine jewelers who had converted to Protestantism were also among the exiles who came to Geneva. Most of their prior work revolved around saints’ statues, rosaries, and the like. They needed something new to do. Calvin suggested they make watches. The rest is (watchmaking) history. So, too, the British scholars who came to Geneva needed to work. Calvin suggested they publish a Bible. The rest is English Bible history.

The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to use verse divisions, thanks to the work of Robertus Stephanus. Prior editions of the English Bible had chapter breaks only. Stephanus, a brilliant linguist, published several editions of the Greek New Testament. He introduced his innovative verse divisions in his 1551 edition. Nine years later, these same verse numbers appeared in the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible was also the first Bible to have study notes or annotations. The first edition had these annotations in the Gospels only. This edition also had woodcut illustrations, maps, and even tables, which provided a cross-referencing index for names and topics. As later editions rolled off the press, more annotations for the rest of the canonical books appeared. Some later editions even modified the notes or replaced them altogether. Then, as now, the book of Revelation posed special challenges to interpreters and annotators. Later editions fully replaced the notes it had published on John’s Apocalypse.

The Geneva Bible was intentionally affordable. Pocket-sized editions were made available, as were inexpensive editions of the New Testament. The Geneva Bible was intended to be read. It was also intended to be studied. And it was. It was the Bible of William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and the Pilgrims and Puritans who landed in the New World. A Scottish law from 1579 required “every Householder with 300 merks [silver coins]” to own one. Despite King James’ attempts in 1611 at positioning his new translation in the market, the Geneva Bible held sway well into the seventeenth century. Countless readers were helped by the notes reflecting the doctrinal understanding of the Reformation.

There has been no shortage of English Bibles since the Geneva Bible. Neither has there been a shortage of study Bibles since the Geneva Bible. By way of an informal nonscientific study, I counted the study Bibles listed in Christian Book Distributors Bibles catalog for spring/ summer 2015. Not counting children’s Bibles, the number topped one hundred, among them a facsimile edition of the 1560 Geneva Bible. All of these study Bibles except the Geneva Bible date from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

It would not be too much of a stretch to speak of the century spanning from 1917 to the present as “The Century of the Study Bible.” In 1917, Oxford University Press published the Scofield Study Bible. This Bible had first been published in 1909 with a system of cross-references. But the 1917 edition had copious notes promoting a dispensational scheme of theology. It was wildly successful. More than two million copies sold in the early years of the 1917 edition. Oxford University Press officials once declared that the Scofield Bible kept them financially afloat through the years of the Great Depression.

Scofield worked his dispensationalism into every text he could, promoting an unhealthy understanding of the gospel. Consider his note on John 1:17 that teaches salvation was not by grace prior to Christ:

As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ. The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation.

The joke went something like this: You read the English Bible from left to right, the Hebrew Bible from right to left, and the Scofield Bible from the bottom up. In other words, the notes controlled the text. While the joke is funny to a degree, the results are far from humorous. For most of the twentieth century, if you were to walk into a bookstore to purchase a study Bible, you would be hardpressed to find any other option than the Scofield Bible. That changed in 1985, when Zondervan published the NIV Study Bible.

The NIV Study Bible became the new pacesetter for study Bibles. A trans-denominational team set out to produce a consensus Bible that would represent the variety of theological views within evangelicalism. Notes would also include archeological data, and attention would be given to introductions for each book.

The NIV Study Bible marked a study Bible frenzy of sorts. “How to Choose a Study Bible?” was the cover story for a 1996 issue of the Christian Research Journal. A veritable mountain of seven study Bibles provided the cover art.

One of the seven on the cover was The New Geneva Study Bible, first published in 1995 under the editorship of R.C. Sproul. It was renamed the Reformation Study Bible in 1998. Unlike the NIV Study Bible, this study Bible did not seek to represent the broad consensus of evangelicalism; rather, it represented, for the first time since 1560, a study Bible from the Reformed tradition.

The mountain of seven has grown to that hundred-plus number mentioned earlier. There are study Bibles for nearly every denomination or theological point of view. Roman Catholics have The New Jerusalem Bible. The Orthodox Study Bible, The Lutheran Study Bible, and The Wesley Study Bible all serve their respective denominations. Pentecostals and Charismatics have the Spirit-Filled Bible, the Life in the Spirit Study Bible, and others.

In addition, there are study Bibles from nationally known teachers. A standout among these is The MacArthur Study Bible, first published in 1997. A recent publishing phenomenon is to have study Bibles associated with particular historical figures. Hendrickson has published The Matthew Henry Study Bible, bringing his commentary and other writings onto the same pages of a KJV Bible. The same publisher has also released The A.W. Tozer Bible. This trend will likely continue.

Other trends include particularly themed study Bibles such as The Apologetics Study Bible or the NIV Archaeological Study Bible. There are also many “affinity” study Bibles, such as The Firefighter’s Bible, The Marine’s Bible, and so forth. There are gender-specific and age-specific Bibles. Women have their own study Bibles, as do men, as do teens, as do children, and so on.

Perhaps the nadir of this publishing phenomenon was reached with the publication of Revolve Bible, a magazine-formatted study Bible of sorts for teenage girls. This includes a series of notes under the title “Guys Speak Out on Tons of Important Issues.” Among them we find this Q&A:

Q: Do you ever think about getting married?

A: Kinda, I guess. But not really. Like, I’d never buy a wedding magazine or anything.

But not all recent study Bible publications are to be lamented. The ESV Study Bible and the response to it shows a hunger for intense Bible study. So also is the case with the thoroughly revised version of the Reformation Study Bible. The ESV Study Bible has 2,750 pages and the Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition) has roughly 2,500, both packing a virtual library between their covers.

The mountain of study Bibles keeps growing, but not all growth is necessarily a good thing. The intention of a study Bible is to promote Bible study. Study notes and resources that lead us away from ourselves and our own understanding and toward the biblical text are helpful. When we can’t see the text for the notes, study Bibles are not only unhelpful, but they become barriers to our discipleship, leading us down destructive paths. As in all other things, we must be discerning. We must follow only the trustworthy voices.

The Reformers knew that for the church to remain faithful to Christ, the church and her congregants needed both to read and to study the Bible. The 1560 Geneva Bible embodied that commitment. We should be thankful for the gifted teachers and leaders of our own day who have applied their labors to publishing quality study Bibles that are faithful to God’s Word. May we take advantage of their labors. Take up a good study Bible and read.

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