Count me in favor of study Bibles and commentaries. Often when reading a chapter I get stuck on a passage, and can’t get past it. What does it mean? When I check a comment on the passage, 90% of the time my reaction is “of course, didn’t think of that.” With my Olive Tree app, I’ve purchased a bunch of notes: Reformation Study Bible, ESV Study Bible, Reformation Heritage Study Bible, Matthew Henry Complete, New Testament Commentary (Hendriksen, Kistemaker). All of these are solid, conservative commentaries. I’ve also purchased the Ancient Christian Commentary series. More on that at the end.
For devotional value, Matthew Henry is unsurpassed. It’s beautifully written and wisdom drips from every page. Henry has a way of getting at the heart of a passage in the most helpful of ways. My only complaint is the formatting of the content. It would be good if someone would take the complete commentaries and make it easier to find the verses, maybe by bolding chapter headings/verses and making them sync properly with the Bible verse. It was never easy to find a verse comment in any of the print versions either. Still, the content is so wonderful that it’s worth the time.
One tip with Matthew Henry: do not bother with “concise” versions. There’s no chaff to remove and the effect is to chop up and destroy the beauty and flow. They are borderline criminal. Go Complete!
To learn the meaning of a passage, the Hendriksen / Kistemaker “New Testament Commentary” is the best. This commentary really gets into extended discussions of passages with solid, sensible, and mature Reformed insight. On controversial passages it explains different views and it’s often passionate in its own Dutch Reformed way. For some reason its voice reminds me of those G.I. Williamson books (quite good) on the Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Confessions. The NTC’s only problem is that it’s “Matthew Henry, Jr.” in the area of formatting. Well, it’s not quite as bad. There is bolded text in there and better formatting, but sometimes when you’re in chapter 2, verse 8 you end up at the top of chapter 2 and have to wade around a lot to find the verse. Excellent content, though. At $75 on sale for the entire collection, it’s great stuff. If I had to choose just one commentary on the NT, I’d take this one.
The Reformation Study Bible (2015 revision) and ESV Study Bible notes cover the OT and NT, and are similar in style and amount of content. The Reformation Study Bible has far more notes than the previous RSB version released in the 2000s. It’s a worthy upgrade although I’d like even more notes in it. I haven’t spent time jumping to controversial passages to compare the RSB and the ESV SB, but I’ve heard that the RSB is a bit more “reformed.” They give you a few sentences or a paragraph on a passage, where Kistemaker/Hendriksen sometimes gives you a few pararaphs or a page. As a tag team I’ve found that these two study Bibles do a good job of providing concise but helpful commentary. If I had to choose one I’d take the RSB, but I like them both.
The Reformation Heritage Study Bible (not to be confused with the RSB above) has solid notes, but they are abbreviated and skimpy compared the the RSB and ESV SB. I prefer those two. I haven’t formed an opinion on MacArthur’s Study Bible yet, but the notes have been sound and are roughly at the level of the RSB and ESV SB.
When you read a number of these conservative commentaries you really do notice a similarity in analysis that says something about the perspicuity of Scripture. If I took you to a verse and read from each version, you probably wouldn’t know which was which.
Finally, I tried the “Ancient Christian Commentary” on Scripture. I love the idea of this big set– what did the early church think about Scriptural passages? This set has many volumes and there are lots of notes. Sometimes a passage gets comments from multiple fathers. Unfortunately it includes heretical and heterodox ones, too — Pelagius, anyone? I’d rather see “ancient” commentary focused more on the patristics and ending in the 5th century, but the set is more back-loaded because the church was on the run in the first few centuries when letters and apologetics were common. There is much representation from fathers like Bede and Gregory the Great, who I consider medieval rather than ancient. There’s something about this series that feels disjointed. As someone who has read a lot of history, albeit not heavily in this space, something just doesn’t ‘feel’ quite right about this set. You wonder why certain passages were chosen. Some of the passages are a little odd, making me wonder if there is context missing. It’s a curiosity for sure, but it seems a bit like a church fathers K-Tel collection. It’s questionable if it’s worth the $150 (at 50% off) cost.
ADDENDUM 2/2/16: I added the 22-volume Calvin commentaries on Scripture for $20 on sale at Olive Tree. What a steal. Calvin does not mince words, a trait most refreshing in a day where evil is considered sacred. Non-Calvinists can profit by his words also.
As I’m aging I’m finding it increasingly to read on paper books without getting a headache. For some reason I can read without problems on a computer or Kindle. Maybe it’s the light. I was using free apps on my phone, but after a few months it became frustrating switching between my commentary apps and my Bible. I don’t find web apps like Bible Gateway to be conducive to much more than quickly looking up a verse. So I thinks to meself, why not get a single software package that combines everything in one place?
Some online searching revealed three Bible apps that seemed to be the most popular– Olive Tree, Logos, and Accordance— so I tried all three on a trial basis. What follows is one dummy’s review of these products.
This is not a professional review. I went into this knowing nothing about these products. Those experienced with these packages may find my thoughts shockingly simplistic, but I figure there are other layman schlubs like me out there who are interested in a more powerful Bible application and who are a little intimidated by these products. This review is for people like you.
With Olive Tree, you download the free main app and sign up a free account with an ID and password. The freebie includes some free products like the ESV Bible, a KJV Bible, and a Concise (read: unnecessarily edited) Matthew Henry commentary. To add new products, you just go to the Olive Tree site online or in the app and buy them. Products have a 30-day trial period so it’s risk-free to try stuff out.
I bought the Reformation Study Bible notes (2015), Matthew Henry Complete Commentary, the ESV Study Bible notes, and the NASB with Strongs (the latter gives you word definitions by clicking on words in the text, which I find indispensable) for $60 total during their December sale. I’ve since added other materials, including the wonderful Hendriksen/Kistemaker New Testament Commentary series. Olive Tree has weekly sales and times where they will heavily discount titles; I’d wait for those to purchase stuff. You can share the same Olive Tree account on up to 5 machines or devices… for example, I have it on my iPhone, a PC, and an iPAD. Your notes/tags and highlights sync across the devices, so if you highlight something in the PC software it’ll show up on your iPhone app. You can download all of your products locally to each device so they run faster and don’t require a data connection. You purchase new items on the web site or in the app and you can download them immediately.
Logos has the highest cost of entry. The cheapest option is the Starter Kit and it runs about $300. You have a 30-day trial period and the license is a family license that works with unlimited devices. The Starter kit gives you a huge pile of products (you can see them on the Logos site), but I found most of it to be stuff I wouldn’t use. You can add additional products just like at Olive Tree. Nearly everything I bought at Olive Tree was not included in the Logos starter package. One thing I’ll say for Logos is that the default Greek lookup is much more thorough than Olive Tree’s Strong’s Bible, and it can show the Greek text in interlinear fashion. You can purchase additional products just like with Olive Tree, and I found that costs of these add-on products were pretty similar between Logos and Olive Tree (you can go to each of the sites and see what products are available on each one and what they cost).
Logos is probably the most popular power Bible software, it has a good support forum (which Olive Tree lacks), and easily has the most products available. The web site looked nice and clean. All of this biased me toward it initially, but the splash of cold water arrived after I started using Logos 6 on the PC and my iPhone. It is shockingly clunky. The UI design is terrible. Settings are in weird places. I’d find myself losing a screen and really struggling to figure out how to get back to it. You can’t set Scripture to read in in paragraph format. You can’t have different font sizes between the primary and split window. Just very unpleasant to use. My wife used it awhile and had the same experience. After a few days of frustration I bailed and got a refund.
I used the Accordance demo for a few hours. They sell a a starter kit just like Logos, but the Accordance package is far cheaper at $60. Like Logos, it provides mostly stuff I wouldn’t use, but $60 of unused stuff beats $300 of unused stuff. Accordance’s PC and iOS interfaces are a little lacking in “fit and finish,” but they are superior to the messiness of Logos. Accordance also seemed more powerful in some of its research capabilities than Olive Tree.
I tried Accordance last, after Logos had sapped my meager patience, and probably didn’t give it as fair of a shake as the others. Logos had more resources. Olive Tree had a little better interface and it was significantly cheaper to get started. Some of the add-on products I wanted like the ESV Study Bible were a lot more expensive in Accordance ($60) than they were in Olive Tree ($35 marked down to $20 when on sale).
So I went with Olive Tree. The Windows PC interface is imperfect and there are some bugs, but it’s clean, intuitive, nicely presented, and it’s hard to get too lost. The same goes for the (very nice) iPhone app, which easily bests the Logos and Accordance offerings from a usability standpoint. A few hours using the Logos app one evening was a maddening experience that had me thinking about breaking a few things.
Logos’s support desk will recommend various training videos, but I’m too impatient to use them, and it’s just the principle of the thing: it shouldn’t be hard to navigate software. The interface should be intuitive, especially to an IT guy who has been using software for 25 years. I’m sure Logos has powers Olive Tree lacks, but the “blocking and tackling” work I want to do is read a Bible and consult reference materials without a lot of hassle. A pastor may think it’s worth navigating Logos’s obnoxious interface for its greater depth of materials and capabilities, but I found it too aggravating. The higher price didn’t work in its favor either.
One nice thing about all these apps is that the various study Bibles are created for a certain Bible version in print but with these products you can mix and match. For example, you can have the NASB in the main window with the “ESV Study Bible” notes in the secondary window. All the products also allow you to have the secondary window “follow” the primary window. If you’re looking at John 1:18 in the main window, you’ll see commentary notes for that verse in the secondary window. If you switch the Bible to Romans 1, the commentary will “follow” you.
Olive Tree has been a big help with my study.