There are some really useful reference books about the Bible which can help considerably with Bible reading and study. This page explores the uses, benefits, and limitations of works such as concordances, atlases, dictionaries, commentaries and computer-based Bible-analysis software.
The purpose of this page is to introduce some of the types of reference books that can be useful when you are reading the Bible, and, especially, when you want to study it in more detail. With the judicious purchase of just a few well-chosen reference books, it’s possible to take your Bible reading and study to the next level. You’ll want to collect a couple of different Bible versions (see the Choosing a translation page, but once you’ve got those, there are a few other resources which can prove indispensable. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that neither this site nor its authors take any royalties or other revenue from any of the resources referred to below.
A concordance is a key tool to help you find what you are looking for in the Bible. Some Bibles have small concordances bound in at the back, but your best bet is a separate, larger concordance. Most useful of all is an exhaustive (i.e. complete – some would say exhausting!) concordance, which lists alphabetically all the words that appear in the Bible, and tells you the chapter and verse where they occur. This is very useful if you are interested in a particular subject and want to know where it is discussed in the Bible, or if there is a verse that you can half remember, but are not sure where to find it.
Concordances are typically tied to particular versions of the Bible, so you might find an NIV concordance or an RSV concordance, for example. You can buy a concordance for most of the main Bible translations (for instance, search on Amazon for ‘NIV Bible concordance’ or similar).
If you really want to go to town, some concordances use a special coding or numbering system which lets you trace back to the original word in Hebrew or Greek which lies behind the English word you’re reading. This can be very helpful for detailed Bible study. The most famous system of this type is the one created by James Strong (search on Amazon for ‘Strong’s concordance). This is tied to the Authorised or King James version of the Bible, and even if you use a different version as your main Bible, you may find it useful to have one of these as well if you want to do in-depth Bible study.
It’s also possible to buy dictionaries and lexicons of Bible words (some of them coded with the Strong’s numbering system so that you can use them even if you know nothing about Hebrew or Greek). Some of these are designed for the lay reader (W.E. Vine’s New Testament Words is an example), but many of them are quite technical and beyond the scope of what can be reviewed here. With original words and languages it can be a case of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ – so tread carefully if this is an area that interests you!
Another way of getting the functionality of a concordance – but with even more power – is to use a Bible software program. With these you can easily do searches, track down the meanings of original words, compare different Bible versions, and so forth. You can easily trace through all the occurrences of an original Bible word (in the Hebrew and Greek) by using the search functionality on the Strong’s numbers referred to in the previous section. There are many Bible software packages, from the feature-laden, professional-quality BibleWorks for Windows, to the free or almost-free software like Online Bible (which is a great place to start). For simple English searches there are online resources which allow you to search the Bible without even downloading anything onto your computer. NetBible and Bible Gateway are resources of this type.
A Bible atlas will give you a perspective on the geography of the Bible which can be very helpful. You’ll be able to see the places where Paul travelled, the locations where key Old Testament battles took place, the countries and empires surrounding Israel which are referred to so often in the prophets – and so on. Some Bibles have atlases bound in the back, but there is a good selection of separate atlases also. There are some specialised atlases which attempt to show graphically the unfolding of various Biblical events.
Bible Dictionaries, Encyclopedias and Handbooks
It’s probably worth having one of these in order to provide historical and cultural background information that you may not otherwise have access to. A Bible dictionary would be useful in answering questions like ‘Who were the Hittites?’, or to get an overview of the Old Testament sacrifices under the Law of Moses, for instance. These books also provide information on the various books and sections of the Bible, just like the Bible Toolshed site. It’s probably best to use these books for historical and cultural background. Don’t let them replace reading and interpreting the Bible for yourself!
A commentary is a book which takes a Bible book verse-by-verse and section-by-section, and aims to explain it and explore the possibilities of what it might mean. Since the Bible books first came into being men and women have written commentaries upon it. The Bible is a deep, deep mine, and the practise of commenting on and interpreting it is thus understandably ancient, and the literature vast.
Some commentaries are very technical and contain lots of material that would be dry and complex (if not unintelligible) for the general reader. Others are so facile that they are not much help with anything beyond retelling the story or making trite observations about it. One-volume commentaries are often too brief to be that helpful, and sometimes you are as well off with a ‘Study Bible’ that has decent footnotes than one of these.
It’s worth remembering that the best Bible reading and Bible study you can do will be that which you do yourself. So always start with an open Bible, and only then, when you have some developed thoughts of your own, reach for a commentary if you will. Remember too that commentators are expressing their opinion. They are not necessarily right, and you shouldn’t necessarily accept something just because a book says so. Good commentaries will present the options (if there are a number of possibilities). In some cases, scholars are not all together certain what the original language means, and it is not much use to read an author who pretends that we are. Commentaries are best if you have done some reading and thinking of your own, if you get stuck, and want to explore what some of the options for interpreting a given passage might be.
Beyond that there are thousands upon thousands of other books about the Bible! Some of them are topical studies (for instance, you will find books on suffering, baptism, the spread of early Christianity, archaeology, histories, and so forth). Then there are thousands more books on individual Bible books and passages. As the Preacher said in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
These books vary massively in quality, presuppositions, outlook and purpose, and it is impossible to make generalisations. Some are wonderful, and some are awful. What can certainly be said, however, is that the most useful time you can spend is by reading the Bible for yourself, not reading other books about it! A few well chosen reference books can certainly enhance your Bible reading, but once you have these, then spending time with Bible in hand once more is probably the most valuable thing a person can do.