Nothing will ever replace the feeling of a well-worn, leather-bound old Bible in your hand that’s full of notes, highlights, underlines, and maybe a handwritten note from the person who gave it to you on the inside cover. But that’s a book for keeping safe by your bedside, not stuffing in your backpack for eight hours a day on campus. Besides, it takes years to wear in a Bible, and there is a promised land of Bible study tools available right now for use online.
It can be a bit daunting to start studying any book as thick as a full Bible. Young Christians are often advised to begin with the New Testament, while introductory Bible classes often start from the beginning with either the Book of Genesis or the Book of Job (the oldest book of the Bible). Especially if you choose to tackle the Old Testament first, a reading plan that sets aside a certain amount of time each day or each week is the best way to stick to it.
Wherever you begin, it’s important to remember that the Bible is a millennia-old work by dozens of authors from different walks of life, cultures, and time periods that’s been translated countless times over the centuries by translators with their own limitations, beliefs, and biases. While much of it can be read and understood on its face, you need to consult multiple versions, dictionaries, commentaries, and history itself, as well as compare the pieces to the rest of the Bible as a whole, to unlock deeper meaning from your study.
Luckily, you don’t have to do all this yourself. Scholars and theologians have been producing these study tools since the time of the early church and even before, and today their spiritual descendants are updating these tools for the Web to help people like you in your journey to examine the Word of God. We’re breaking down some of the best and most helpful of these.
Note: Several of the sites we mention in one category also feature tools from other categories. While we may have chosen to highlight just one area of functionality, these sites are often excellent resources for a host of study purposes and you should navigate through them thoroughly to appreciate all they offer.
Leaving aside the issue of divine inspiration, at least as far as your study needs are concerned, there’s probably no perfect Bible translation. The Living Bible can do wonders in helping you get the gist of a passage, but no serious Bible student would attempt to use it for an inductive study. It’s often useful to call up two (or more) versions at the same time to see how they differ. Reading three or four translations will give you a more complete picture of a passage’s meaning than just one. For an idea of the spectrum of translation strictness, check a Bible translation comparison chart.
For stripped-down, easy version-to-version comparison, BibleStudyTools.com is one of the best choices. Its Online Parallel Bible feature allows you to select any two translations from a dropdown menu and see them displayed exactly side-by-side, with each verse beginning at an even height on the page, even if they are in different languages. There are no options for add-ons like footnotes.
To have the footnotes included, along with chapter section headers, popular Bible study site BibleGateway.com allows you to view up to five translations simultaneously. Once you’ve called up a passage, compare it with another version by clicking the yellow “Add parallel” button. Unlike the BibleStudyTools experience, the verses of different versions will not align perfectly and the layout looks more cluttered.
As you’ve probably gathered, the translation of a word or passage can vary widely and convey quite different meanings. This is because in conversion from Greek and Hebrew to English, things sometimes get lost in translation. There isn’t always a perfect English substitute for the metaphor-heavy Hebrew language, or the Greek, for that matter. Some feel the King James (KJV) is the most accurate, while others believe Young’s Literal Translation is the truest. However, read either of these for very long and you’ll see why people prefer modern-day versions.
Short of learning to read Hebrew and Greek, Strong’s Concordance is the best way to see for yourself what a word meant in its original usage. Using the Blue Letter Bible’s searchable Hebrew and Greek lexicon, you can type in an English word and view all the Strong’s entries for that term. Click on one of the reference numbers and you can read the definition and every verse where that exact Hebrew or Greek word was used.
Another respected reference guide is The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Trust us, you don’t want to carry this cinder block around, and fortunately you don’t have to. At OxfordReference.com you can view explanations of all 700+ entries of people, places, books, events, beliefs, and more related to the Bible.
If, after all that, you’re still in need of a readable but close translation, we found a “work in progress” web page for a Revised Young’s Literal Translation courtesy of Auburn University’s Rev. Ken Allen. He also offers a “clarified” version of the KJV on his site that he says his theologically identical to the original, just easier to read.
It’s easy to miss how far Paul traveled in his evangelism days, or the convoluted route the Israelites took while wandering in the desert, but seeing those things visualized really helps you get a feel for the epic nature of stories in the Bible. It’s also a great way to aid your retention, giving you an image you can commit to memory.
Under the “Miscellaneous” tab in the “Personal Tools” section of StudyLight.org, you’ll find 35 pages of maps depicting everything from the locations of Elijah and Elisha’s exploits to King Saul’s kingdom and wars. Each has an easily read key and half a dozen available viewing sizes, and some feature informative descriptions of their contents.
To kick things up a notch from illustrations to satellite images, try BibleMap.org. The site uses Google Maps to show you where a Bible passage took place. Just select a book and a chapter in either KJV or ESV, and the app goes to work. The site Bible.ca also hosts satellite maps that are chock-full of data, like all the mentioned locations of events in six chapters of Judges, covering 146 years. The site also has some thorough timelines and infographic-esque flowcharts. If you can put up with its somewhat cheesy, clip-art appearance, it might well save you hours of study time.
There are some handy flowcharts about Revelations and the prophecies of Daniel at a site called Daniel Revelation Bible Studies. Like the drawings on many similar sites, they are somewhat rudimentary, and the choice of a plus-sign mouse cursor is a little odd, but the images make nice crib notes for some of the most opaque passages in the Good Book.
In Mark 5:41, Jesus says if someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two instead. On the surface, it’s clear this is a teaching to go above and beyond in serving others. But his audience would have recognized it as a reference to a specific Roman law requiring citizens to assist Roman soldiers with their gear for up to one mile if requested. The Jews hated the Romans and would have been amazed to hear Jesus advocate going out of their way to help them. This is a simple illustration of the power of knowing the history behind a verse.
EarlyJewishWritings.com has a lengthy library of both online and offline books, texts, and resources for writers like Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. Its sister site, EarlyChristianWritings.com, can similarly connect you with articles and writings by or about early church writers like Aristo of Pella and Irenaeus of Lyons. On the Bible History Daily website, you can find some fascinating articles on little-known stories and characters, like “Anna the prophetess” mentioned in Luke 2. If you know which title or author you’re looking for, Project Gutenberg can be a way to find HTML, Kindle, mobile, and other versions of classic texts.
Delving into the historical background of Bible stories is a significant part of what you’ll find in commentaries. DeeperStudy.com has an ample database of Bible commentaries by titans of the faith like Calvin, Wesley, Gill, and Clarke. For commentaries from one of today’s best-known names in Christian circles, you can find Dr. Warren Wiersbe’s Old Testament and New Testament commentaries for free PDF download at the website of Christ-Like Transforming Ministries.
Tips on Reading the Bible
As we said, a good reading plan is an effective way to work through the Bible in a given amount of time. The One Year Bible plan is very popular and can be set up and worked through for free online without purchasing the hard copy. Just select your version and start date, and the site will lay out your week’s readings of four passages per day. Besides following a routine, here are a few other tips on reading the Bible:
- Let go of preconceived notions: An open mind is important when considering any new information, but that’s especially true when faith is involved. In the spirit of Hebrews 5, don’t be afraid to take advantage of the Internet to hear from people with differing views than those you’re used to hearing in church. For example, Tentmaker.org is a Bible study site dedicated to refuting the concept of eternal hell using scripture.
- Cast a wider net: Since you’ve got that mind open already, give a thought to what you consider “the Bible.” Is it just the stuff between the covers of your NIV? If so, it might interest at least our Protestant readers to know that the canon was defined by the Roman Catholic Church in 397, basically by a show of hands for each book’s inclusion or exclusion. The Apocrypha can often help serious Bible students fill in gaps in their knowledge where the official canon is silent. SacredTexts.com makes these books freely available online. Our recommendation: start with the Book of Jasher.
- Seek out someone to disciple you: We’re not discounting the power of going off by yourself to hear from God — Paul effectively did so by going to Arabia for three years and avoiding the apostles. Of course, this was immediately after his direct revelation from Jesus Christ. In the absence of such a vision, it’s wise to find an older Christian who can help you make sense of the things you’re reading. Remember that people like Hitler and the KKK have used scripture to justify their actions, proof that misunderstanding the Bible can have terrible results.
Never before in history have students of the Bible had better access to the scriptures or more tools with which to unlock the wisdom it contains. Whether you’re a student, a regularly practicing Christian, or an Easter-and-Christmas churchgoer just starting out, there’s always something more to learn from the Bible about God, people, and life, both temporal and eternal. Now, thanks to the Internet, it’s all just a click away.