Reference books are the tools of the trade for people who study the Bible, that is, you and I. As with any trade, there is a large investment in tools. Bible Study is no exception. This is the one place I can think of where you really can throw moderation out the door. Here, you can completely indulge yourself. Buy all the books you can afford, get into them, and learn of God!
Some of us don't have that kind of budget though! So where do we start? Hopefully, we will answer that question, or at least address it so that we don't wander aimlessly through the local bookstore spending lots of unnecessary money on something we don't yet need.
The Most Important Book
Easily, and without debate, the most important book you will ever own is a Bible. What kind of Bible do you buy? What translation?
Translations are pretty much a matter of personal taste, and there is much to be said for each one of them, except of course the New World Translation (from the Jehovah's Witnesses)! In a Bible to be used for study, the choices basically come down to three possibilities: King James, New American Standard, and the New International Version. An important concept to keep in mind is that whichever translation you choose, stick to it! Why? Because you'll find it MUCH easier to remember verses and figures of speech if you stay with one text. King James is the classic translation used for years by almost all bible teachers. The good points in choosing King James is that most reference works key themselves to King James, almost all the commentators quote from King James, and is a very well known translation. The Standard. On the bad side, King James is difficult to get used to. Many of the words used are outdated, there are some inaccuracies in the translation (all of which by the way are addressed in reference books), and is by far the least readable of the translations. New American Standard sought to be a more literal translation of the Bible. It is probably the second most popular translation in use today, and there are many reference books that key to it. On the bad side, the classical commentators did not have a New American Standard to quote from, so not all reference works will key to it. While New American Standard is a definite improvement in readability over King James, it is not the most readable of the three most popular translations. New International Version is the most readable translation. Modern English was used (it is the newest of the three translations). On the bad side, almost no reference books quote from The New International . . . yet! This translation is gaining in popularity probably faster than any other translation today. OK, so which one do you go for? Well, how good are you at the English language? How diligent a student do you plan to be? Are you willing to overcome the difficulties of old English? Perhaps you'd like two different translations. One for study, and one for casual reading. I highly recommend King James if you can put up with the old English. If for no other reason than that almost all reference books key to it, and quote from it. Once you get used to the language, it becomes second nature to you. If you find that you have trouble with King James, pick up a New International Version for casual reading.
Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
A Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia lists just about any concept or topic in the Bible and seeks to explain it, or give background on it. You might look up chariots and find out all kinds of things about a chariot. You might look up Paul and get a brief biography of him. These books are not just parallel passage works (although they contain that as well), but also contain archaeologic and historic information not found in the Bible. You could spend many a fulfilling evening browsing through one of these books. Some names to look into are Unger's Bible Dictionary, Smith's Bible Dictionary, New Bible Dictionary, Davis Bible Dictionary, Harper's Bible Dictionary, and many, many others. Depending on where you go, and which one you like, you'll spend between $10 and $25 for these. Unger's Dictionary is also available in a generic softcover for less than $10 when you can find it.
A Commentary seeks to explain the scriptures to us. There are many, many, many commentaries out there. The list is endless. Their focus ranges from devotional to expository, from practical to prophetic, from surface level to in-depth, from complete sets to individual books, from one-volume commentaries to 20, 30 and 40 volume sets. Everyone should probably have a one-volume commentary, at least most people think so! The classical, standard one to have is Matthew Henry's one-volume commentary, but deserving of mention is the Wycliffe One Volume Commentary. These are pretty much basic, devotional commentaries that will help with insights that you can use every day. But you don't just buy a one-volume commentary thinking that you'll never buy another one! A one-volume commentary is of very limited use. More useful is to buy a commentary on a book you are studying.
Now we get into reference books where YOU do the work instead of benefiting from work already done. It is important to get an exhaustive concordance. An exhaustive concordance will list EVERY word in the Bible alphabetically. There are many uses for this. When you can't find a certain passage, but you know a couple of the words, look it up in the concordance. When you do a word study of, say the word gold, you can find ALL the places where gold is mentioned. A good concordance will also give you the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic definitions of all the words in the Bible. Despite their size, concordances are not all that expensive. If you shop around, you can find concordances for $10. There are two popular concordances: Strong's and Young's. I guess I should just say to go for the best deal. Just make sure it is an exhaustive concordance.
Manners and Customs Books
These books give insight into the backgrounds of the culture and practices of Bible times. There is no real set standard here, but a valuable feature in one of these books is that it is keyed to the Bible reference rather than by topic.
An expository dictionary differs from a Bible Dictionary in that we actually look up a word used in the Bible and get a complete definition of that word as used in the text, as opposed to a general definition as you find in a concordance. Here, the standard and basic work is Vine's Expository Dictionary.
An Interlinear Bible will have the actual original language of the Bible and a literal, word for word translation right below it, with a King James (or other) text on the facing page. The word for word translation will be in all its glory of being in bad English grammar (obviously) and sometimes misleading, but nevertheless QUITE valuable when you need to know the exact word, or you'd like to see what the text says literally.
Hebrew and Greek Concordances
What? Another concordance? Yes, this time instead of looking up a word in English and finding all the occurrences of a word, we can look up the original Hebrew or Greek word and find all the occurrences! So what if you don't read Greek or Hebrew? No problem if you bought Strong's Exhaustive Concordance! You look up a word in Strong's and get Strong's word number (there is a number for every word in Strong's). Then you take that number and, if you buy Baker's Hebrew and Greek Concordances, and look it up. The book will list ALL the places that exact word is used. Of course, I'd definitely recommend the Concordances published by Baker. The official titles are The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance by George V. Wigram, and The Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance by George V. Wigram.
Now that we can look up all the occurrences of the original words, we can get even more complete definitions of words! Again, coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance and published by Baker Book House, there are Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to The Old Testament a dictionary numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance with an exhaustive English index, and Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament a dictionary numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. Again, these two books are $20 each, and match the two concordances previously mentioned. Now, understand that you aren't locked in to purchasing only these works. There are lots of others. The advantage to these is that you don't need to read Greek or Hebrew. From: Michael Dolim - A BIBLE COMPANION copyrighted shareware software Version 5.0
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