A study Bible is simply a Bible with explanatory notes printed along with the text of Scripture. Many Bibles have footnotes with cross-references or very brief notes that may clarify the definition of a word, but a study Bible has much more extensive notes and may also include maps, charts, illustrations, and photos. A study Bible is like a Bible and commentary all in one.
The Geneva Bible was one of the first English Bibles to have extensive notes. Because the notes were Calvinist in nature, those who opposed that theological position objected to it. This led King James I of England to authorize a translation of the Bible without any explanatory notes.
Perhaps one of the most influential study Bibles of more recent times is the Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909 by Oxford University Press. It was revised in 1917. The author of the study notes was C. I. Scofield, and the notes promoted dispensational and fundamentalist theology. This study Bible was the Bible of choice for a generation of Christians in the United States.
In more recent years, the number of study Bibles has ballooned. Now, many study Bibles include not only explanatory notes but also devotional thoughts and points of application. There also seem to be study Bibles with every imaginable kind of emphasis. Some are quite broad in scope, like the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, which highlights the various cultural practices that may give light to a passage of Scripture. The Apologetics Study Bible addresses issues that skeptics may raise. The Archeological Study Bible provides archeological information that will help the reader understand the ancient text. Others narrow the scope of their notes, targeting them for women or men or students or members of the armed services. There is even a study Bible for African-American couples.
Many popular religious personalities have also produced study Bibles. The John MacArthur Study Bible is filled with expository notes and commentary. On the opposite end of the theological spectrum, Joel and Victoria Osteen have produced a study Bible filled with devotional and “inspirational” thoughts. Sometimes these may be called “devotional Bibles.”
There can be some dangers to using a study Bible. If the study Bible is done by an orthodox, evangelical scholar (or, better yet, a team of orthodox, evangelical scholars), then it can be helpful to the reader. However, many study Bibles are produced by teachers or groups who are less than orthodox. Putting their notes in a study Bible may give those notes a level of credibility they do not deserve. A study Bible that focuses on a small subset to which the reader belongs (such as men or African-American couples) may give the impression that the Bible is really “all about me.” Although the Bible has something to say to every subset of the population, it is really all about God. (On the other hand, a study Bible of this sort might be a gateway for someone who is a member of one of these subsets to actually read the Bible for the first time.) Finally, even the most in-depth study Bible is going to be brief and selective in what it includes. One would do well to consult a variety of evangelical commentaries for multiple lines of evidence on how to interpret a given passage.
In summary, the reader must carefully evaluate any study Bible he chooses to use. One must not forget that the notes are not inspired, and some notes are more accurate than others.