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1 Tools How to Build a Bible Reference Library

Christy Bower

1 Table of Contents About the Author Introduction Ten Study Tools, as Follows: 1. Bible Dictionary 2. Bible Handbook 3. Bible Atlas 4. Concordance 5. Bible Encyclopedia 6. Bible History and Culture 7. Word Study and Original Language Tools 8. Commentaries 9. Software 10. Online Resources Š2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

2 About the Author Thanks for your interest in learning more about building a Bible reference library. I appreciate your desire to learn God’s Word. And it’s important to learn to study the Bible for yourself rather than relying on the opinions of others. It’s never healthy to let others tell you what to think.

breadth of my experience helped me build my own Bible reference library and I want to share that knowledge with you.

That’s why I want to be clear that the content of this handbook is my personal opinion. My preferences and recommendations may differ from yours or your spiritual influencers. That’s okay. If you’re new to the area of Bible reference books and personal Bible study, this will be a good place to start. I’ll tell you what tools will be the most beneficial and where you can make choices. More importantly, I’ll tell you why you can do without one and choose another one instead.

After more than two decades as a professional writer, I’ve done enough research to know which books are my go-to sources and second picks. I also know which volumes to grab if I want a quick overview and where to look if I want to dig into the technical details.

I have a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Multnomah Biblical Seminary. During my time there I delved the pages of many, many Bible reference books. Some I found helpful and others not so much. But the

I want to share this information with you, absolutely free. Because studying the Bible is the most important thing you can do with your time (and money).

©2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

3 Introduction Back-to-school season always puts me in an academic mood. I loved school. I especially loved seminary. And I love academic books. The books I get excited about, other people might consider boring. My shelves are filled with thick, heavy reference books so I thought I’d share my love of Bible reference books with you by explaining how you can begin to build a Bible reference library of your own.

I’ll help you wade through the piles of reference books so you can discover answers to these questions. The answers might vary from person to person, depending on what resources you already have, or what you might find most beneficial for your current study methods and budget.

Bible reference books can be overwhelming because there are so many choices and so many types of reference books. You might be wondering things like:

Why Do I Need a Bible

         

What’s the difference? How do I use them? Where do I start? What are the core items for beginning a Bible reference library? How can I plan what sequence to add titles to my library? What’s most important? What will I use most often? How do I select from so many choices? Which items are best? What do you recommend?

Reference Library? You might be thinking, I have a concordance, maps, and study notes in my Bible, so why do I need other books? It’s important to have more detailed resources. The limited amount of information in your Bible has some usefulness on a devotional level, but you’re going to need more if you want to really study the Bible. For example, the concordance in your Bible is extremely limited. If you look at a six pound exhaustive concordance, you’ll see how much you’ve been missing. The concordance in your Bible might help you locate a popular verse, but it won’t help you

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explore everything the Bible says on a particular subject. In this series, I’ll devote each post to a specific type of reference book: Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias, Bible handbooks, concordances, Bible atlases, books on Bible history and culture, and word study tools. There is so much available and, if you’re like me, you can only afford to invest a little bit at a time, so I hope to help you understand your options so you can pick up the tools that are most beneficial to you.

Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible, Revised and Updated By Howard G. Hendricks & William D. Hendricks

How Do I Learn to Study the Bible? I might write a separate series on how to study the Bible. There is a lot to be said on this topic. In fact, there are entire books on the subject, so if you really don’t know where to begin, you might want to check out one of these books. Both of these are on my bookshelf:

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth By Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart

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5 Bible Dictionary If you could only have one reference book, I would strongly recommend you select a good Bible dictionary. A Bible dictionary allows you to follow your curiosity when reading the Bible. You can look up people, places, events, books of the Bible, and ideas covered in the Bible. If you will take time to use your Bible dictionary regularly, you will learn at an amazing rate. 

 

Read about Corinth and you’ll understand why Paul addressed certain topics when he wrote to the Corinthians. Read about Abraham and you’ll gain a clear synopsis of his life and times. Look up Hebrews and you’ll read about the theological concepts covered, the history and context, and see an outline of the book. And, even if you don’t have an atlas, a Bible dictionary usually contains maps related to places you might look up.

A Bible dictionary is a handy all-in-one reference book and it is the place I always start before expanding to other sources of information. The overview in the Bible

dictionary gives me a foundation for understanding and identifying what else I might want or need to explore. Sometimes this can start a chain reaction as you follow other related topics. That’s okay. Go for it. Follow your curiosity. I have the earlier edition of the Holman Bible Dictionary and it’s extremely useful and beautifully done! I’m sure the new edition lives up to the same high standards.

Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Revised and Expanded By C. Brand, C.W. Draper & A. England

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6 Bible Handbook A Bible handbook provides an overview of each book of the Bible. And, honestly, I don’t think we spend enough time studying the Bible as it was meant to be studied: one book at a time. I enjoy studying whole books of the Bible so my Bible handbook gets a lot of use. A Bible handbook will discuss who wrote a book and to whom it was written. It will identify the issues addressed in the book and provide a synopsis and outline. It will discuss the history and context of where this book fits in Bible history. It’s also an excellent way to learn how the books of the Bible relate to each other. Many of them were written by fellow prophets in the same era, for instance. This is useful for identifying, for example, if an Old Testament prophet wrote during the Assyrian or Babylonian era, or which of Paul’s missionary journeys he might have been on when he wrote a particular epistle. A good Bible handbook will also provide maps, charts, and devotional aids to help you get the most out of any book of the Bible.

That’s why I often make a Bible handbook the second (or sometimes first) reference book I grab to explore a book of the Bible. If you have to choose between a Bible dictionary and a Bible handbook, I would pick a Bible dictionary because it contains an abbreviated form of the information you might find in a Bible handbook. However, if you are new to the Bible, a Bible handbook would really help you get your bearings on what the Bible is all about. A Bible handbook is a must-have for navigating your way through the Bible when you are in unfamiliar territory. Another consideration: if you tend to do a portion of your study online, there are Bible dictionaries available for free online, but not so much in the way of handbooks. For this reason, you might consider using an online Bible dictionary and purchasing a good handbook instead. I always appreciate a book with good, fullcolor maps, charts, graphs, timelines, and other visual aids to learning.

©2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

A good Bible handbook is worth the investment. I have earlier editions of both of these on my bookshelf:

The Holman Bible Handbook By David Dockery

Illustrated Bible Handbook By Lawrence O. Richards

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8 Bible Atlas The third tool I recommend, after a Bible dictionary and Bible handbook, is a Bible atlas. Sure, you probably have a few maps in the back of your Bible, but a Bible atlas is much more. Most of them are arranged chronologically and they provide wonderful articles describing the international and cultural influences of the times. A Bible atlas helps to make sense of the Assyrian, Babylonian, or Persian empires, for example, by describing their rise to power, and visualizing the spread of their empire on a map. Battles make much more sense when seen on a map, as do the journeys of various people in the Bible.

Holman Bible Atlas By Thomas Brisco

There are countless ways a Bible atlas can add depth of insight to your Bible study, especially if you are a visual learner like me. I have the Holman Bible Atlas and the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible is on my wish list. Either of these fine resources would serve you well.

Zondervan Atlas of the Bible By Carl G. Rasmussen

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9 Concordance If you thought a concordance was for finding a verse reference that you have forgotten, you have never learned the value of using a concordance. Some people might even look up a word and study all of the references listed for the English word, but this only gives you part of the information. It’s like studying one side of a coin without even realizing there is another side of the coin that looks different.

Standard Version, then use an NASB exhaustive concordance.

When selecting a concordance, make sure you get an exhaustive concordance because that will contain every word in the Bible. Don’t settle for a smaller “complete” concordance because it is like a “best of” version of the concordance. Plus, these smaller concordances don’t contain the original language dictionaries so you can learn the meaning of a word in the original Hebrew or Greek.

The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance By Edward W. Goodrick & John R. Kohlenberger III

The most important factor in selecting a concordance is to get a concordance that corresponds to the Bible translation you are using. If you use the New International Version, then use an NIV exhaustive concordance. If you use the New American

The Strongest NASB Exhaustive Concordance By Zondervan

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When you look up a word, the column of numbers listed to the right of the verse references in a concordance are the numbers that correspond to the definitions for the original Hebrew or Greek words. If it’s an Old Testament reference, you will use the Hebrew dictionary; if it is a New Testament reference, you will use the Greek dictionary. Once you find the number in the correct dictionary at the back of the concordance, you will see the Hebrew or Greek word and its definition, followed by a list of ways it is translated in that particular translation. Each word or phrase in this list is followed by a number in parenthesis. This tells you how many times that word is translated that way.

10 Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Updated Edition KJV By Hendrickson Publishers

You can then look up those additional words and locate the references so you can gain a fuller understanding of all the ways the original Hebrew or Greek word was used. This brief explanation doesn’t do justice to the process, but I hope you’ve at least gained a glimpse for the wealth of information contained in a concordance and why you shouldn’t settle for anything less than an exhaustive concordance for the translation you use most.

©2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

11 Bible Encyclopedias I consider the core Bible reference tools to be a Bible dictionary, a Bible handbook, a Bible atlas, and an exhaustive concordance. Begin by adding those to your library. From there we can begin to expand into more detailed or specialty reference books. One of the essential “extras” for a Bible reference library is a Bible Encyclopedia. It contains more detailed articles and thorough articles than a Bible dictionary. A good Bible encyclopedia will also provide detailed explanations on problem texts where alternate views are held among scholars. It will also include articles on extrabiblical sources such as the Apocrypha.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [ISBE], 4 Vols. By Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley Check it out online: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

When I’m doing in-depth research, I always consult a Bible encyclopedia for a thorough understanding of the topic or text. There are older versions of Bible encyclopedias that are now in the public domain and available on the Internet. If you’re looking to save money, you can consult one of the older versions online, but if you want the latest scholarship, you’ll want a good Bible encyclopedia on your shelf.

The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5 Volumes: Revised By Edited by Moises Silva & Merrill C. Tenney

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12 Bible History and Culture Any thorough study of the Bible is going to include Bible background information on the history and culture of Bible times. We’ve already looked at a few tools that provide some of this information: Bible dictionaries, handbooks, and atlases. But there are entire volumes dedicated to Bible background information. Some specialize in manners and customs of the Bible; others specialize in Bible history or archaeology. Why would you want to study Bible history and culture more in depth? It’s important to understand the context of a particular Bible passage. Our first job is to understand what the Bible meant to those who wrote it and read it for the first time. What did it mean in their situation? Only when we understand what the Bible meant in the original context can we then apply that to a similar situation in our lives. To put it another way: the Bible can’t mean something to us that it didn’t mean to the original readers.

are specialty dictionaries listing items by topic. Others are more like a commentary, listing relevant information by the Bible verse reference. There are many choices in this area, but here are a few of my favorites that you might want to check out.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament & the Old Testament, 2 Volumes By J.H. Walton, V.H. Matthews, M. Chavalas & Craig S. Keener

Bible history and culture is an area of specialty reference books. Many of them ©2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

13 Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Old Testament, 5 Volumes By Edited by John H. Walton

Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Manners and Customs: How the People of the Bible Really Lived – eBook By Howard F. Vos

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary New Testament, 4 Volumes By Edited by Clinton E. Arnold

The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times, Revised and Updated By Ralph Gower

Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship By Inter-Varsity Press

NIV Archaeological Study Bible, Personal Size Hardcover 1984 By Zondervan

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14 Word Study and Original Language Tools You can gain some very good insight about the meaning of words by using an exhaustive concordance. It will give you the meanings of the words in the original Hebrew or Greek, as well as a list of the places the word is used in the Bible.

are much more academic. That is, word study tools are suitable for an average to advanced student of the Bible. An original language tool gets much more technical and is best suited for those who know the original languages.

However, word study books that focus on the original languages provide a more thorough analysis. It takes the basic information from a concordance and synthesizes it for you, providing a summary and analysis of how a word is used throughout the Bible. It also tracks the progression of usage and notes how the meaning might change throughout the Bible (for example, Paul might use it one way, but John uses the word with a different nuance).

These are the word study and original language tools I have used, though I lean more toward the word study tools because the original language tools can be difficult and overwhelming with my limited knowledge of Greek and non-existent knowledge of Hebrew.

For clarity, I distinguish between word study tools and original language tools. I consider word study tools as suitable for a layperson, whereas original language tools Š2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

Word Study


The Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words By Eugene Carpenter

Complete Word Study Dictionary, New Testament By Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D.

Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words By W.E. Vine

The Complete Word Study Dictionary : Old Testament By Warren Baker & Eugene Carpenter

The Complete Word Study Bible and Dictionary Pack, 5 Volumes By Edited by Spiros Zodhiates

Key Word Study Bible NASB (2008 new edition), Hardcover By Spiros Zodhiates

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Original Language Tools


New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Abridged OneVolume Edition By Zondervan

A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and O/ Early Christian Literature 3rd ed. (BDAG) By Frederick W. Danker

New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis By Willem A. VanGemeren

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 Volumes By Edited by Gerhard Kittel, translated by G.W. Bromiley

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17 Commentaries I can hear you asking, “What about commentaries?” For many people, commentaries are the first resource they pick up. But that means you haven’t studied the Bible for yourself. You haven’t formed your own educated opinion about what the text says so how do you know if the commentary is right or wrong? If you’ve ever compared two or more commentaries on the same passage, you’ve probably noticed they can have wildly differing interpretations of what is going on. Their opinions are likely slanted toward the doctrinal beliefs of the scholar or publisher. And sometimes cultural agendas taint what a commentator might write about a given passage. Rather than letting the text speak for itself, they force their agenda onto the text and publish it as though it were fact. You don’t want to come to a commentary without an educated view on the subject. So a commentary should be among the last stops in your study. After you have made careful examination of a passage, you will know what the text says and how to

interpret it. Then—and only then—are you prepared to consult some commentaries to compare the wildly different opinions. Rather than letting the opinions of others shape your opinion. Form your opinion first and then verify and compare. It’s perfectly fine, and perhaps advisable, to pick up a volume here and there based on whatever you are studying. And you might pick volumes from a different series for different books of the Bible. There’s nothing saying you have to buy a whole set of the same series. Individual volumes in any given set are written by different authors anyway, so even within one set you will find a wide range of opinions. For that reason, it is difficult to recommend a whole set. Some volumes in the series might contain excellent scholarship and others might contain sloppy work and biased opinions. That being said, I use the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (12 Volumes) on CD when I wish to consult a scholarly source. It is now

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available in an affordable 2-volume abridged set for the Old and New Testaments. I heartily recommend it.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Abridged Edition: 2 Volumes By Kenneth L. Barker & John R. Kohlenberger III, eds.

When I’m just looking for some quick answers, I grab my 2-volume Bible Knowledge Commentary. It is very readable and does not delve into intimidating original languages, but it also gives a concise but insightful explanation of the text. If you’re looking for a place to start, the Bible Knowledge Commentary would be it.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old & New Testament, 2 Volumes By Edited by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck


Although I do not own them, I also included the Holman Old Testament Commentary and the Holman New Testament Commentary. I have handled them and browsed through them in stores. They are beautifully crafted, as is anything by Broadman Holman. They are less academic than the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (for instance), but they are very readable for the layperson and it looks like you could teach a Bible class right off the page. They are well organized and if I ever get a spare hunk of change, I’ll invest in these. They would be great for personal Bible study.

Holman New Testament Commentary, 12 Volumes By Edited by Max Anders

Holman Old Testament Commentary [HOTC], 20 Volumes By Edited by Max Anders

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One last note: although I have included references to the sets of commentaries, they are also available individually. And I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s available. I just started with the ones I have confidence recommending.

Holman Old Testament [HOTC] & Holman New Testament [HNTC] Commentary, 32 Volumes By B&H Books

I have a couple volumes of the Life Application Bible Commentary series. They excel at exactly that. In a very readable format that outlines the text, they provide a solid Bible application for each point of the outline. Most commentaries are useful as a reference too. But if you’re looking for some devotional reading, these would be good to read from cover to cover.

Life Application Bible Commentary New Testament Set By Tyndale House

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20 Software Oh, my, where should I begin? As you’re well aware, software is an ever-changing product. Every year, software developers are trying to outdo their competitors so what might be a good product one year, is mediocre compared to another product the following year. For this reason, I’m reluctant to put too much specific information in print because it will be quickly outdated. That being said, there are a wide range of software products available to aid your Bible study efforts. Among the best I would recommend are the stand-alone products rather than the suites with a multitude of things. The Essential IVP Reference Collection 3.0 is an example of what I call a stand-alone product. It doesn’t pretend to do everything. It does one thing well. In this case it offers a digital collection of IVPs best (and high-quality, I might add) reference books. It is well-worth the investment. I have an older version, but they have added even more books to the collection since my

copy. You’ll be saving money and shelf space over the same print volumes.

The Essential IVP Reference Collection 3.0 By IVP Academic Many people want an entire suite of Bibles, dictionaries, commentaries, and more. There are too many of these software packages to list here. BibleWorks 9.0 would have to be at the top of the list. I have not used it personally, but I am very familiar with its reputation among academics. It has top-notch scholarly tools for Greek and Hebrew study. It has a

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healthy price tag, but if you’re looking for a hearty Bible software program, this is it.

BibleWorks 9.0 on DVD-ROM By Bibleworks, LLC

Among what I would consider the “home study” suites, QuickVerse seems to have stood the test of time. They have made efforts to get a number of products available in their platform, which makes their platform appealing to the masses.

QuickVerse 10 Bible Suite By WORDsearch Bible Software

That’s one thing to be aware of going in. Some books and reference products will make a contract with one software company. That means some things will only


be available for QuickVerse. Other things will only be available for PC Study Bible, and so forth. It can be frustrating. If you have favorite tools you like to use, find out which software platform they use and go with that.

You also need to know that many of the software companies will sell several packages at different price points. In some ways this is good because it allows you to spend a few bucks to check out a program if you aren’t sure which one you want to invest in fully. That’s the problem. You can expect that an inexpensive program (less than $300, let’s say) will have nothing but old, public domain commentaries and reference works. Certainly the truth of the Bible hasn’t changed any, but scholarship has come a long way in a few hundred years. And let me ask you this: are you comfortable trudging through Old English, plus theological jargon, plus unfamiliar biblical concepts all at once? I didn’t think so. But when average folks buy an “affordable” Bible suite, that’s exactly what they’re going to get. The software companies have a solution for that. They will continually sell you upgrades, downloads, and add-on products for years to come. Your small investment, if you want to make it usable, will end up costing you a fortune. Did you know that most (if not all) of the dictionaries, commentaries, and resources on an entry-level package are all in the

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public domain and available for free on the Internet? That kind of sucks, considering you just spent forty bucks on software full of freebies. The software company just made a killing on that one. I know that’s a lot of doom and gloom, but I want you to be aware of the issues before you get blindsided by them. Now, I can tell you some positives. Bible software allows you to have great scholarship at your fingertips. It is certainly a space saver. Your sagging bookshelves will thank you. I’ve tried several Bible software programs years ago. They all have newer versions out now. I really liked the early versions of PC Study Bible. I thought it was intuitive to use and not so complicated as some of the others.

22 NLT Study Bible, Libronix Edition on CDROM By Tyndale House The NLT Study Bible has always been a favorite of mine for casual reading. This one is on the Libronix platform, which didn’t seem to take off like some of the others, but I’ve used Libronix libraries before and found them just fine. Space does not allow me to go into too much detail here. I’d like to write a whole separate guide to software with screenshots and more specific comparisons. But let me close this section with my personal approach to software. As I said at first, I prefer stand-alone products to software suites because you get what you pay for and not a lot of extra stuff that you won’t use anyway.

Biblesoft PC Study Bible 5.0: Discovery Reference Library on CD-ROM By Biblesoft But, again, PC Study Bible has several packages available for different price points. Make sure you are familiar with the contents of your package so you know what you’re getting.

For the most part, I have not found software suites to have high-quality, up-todate reference works, unless it is a publisher featuring a suite of their own products. Bottom line: Software may not be worth the investment if you can’t afford a big package.

©2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

23 Online Resources This section is a little overwhelming to tackle. There is so much information available online now that it’s difficult to keep up with what’s available. Perhaps I’ll write a separate handbook that goes into more detail about online Bible resources. As with software, the free stuff you’re going to find online is in the public domain, which means anyone is free to use it, so everyone does. That’s why most online Bible sites have pretty much the same list of resources available.

you would enjoy Bible study more if you used reference materials you can understand. I’ll include a short list of Bible reference sites, but if you find them difficult to understand, spend a few bucks on a couple of the books I’ve mentioned earlier. Don’t let yourself get frustrated trying to understand Old English reference books just because they are free. You know the saying: “You get what you pay for.”

Public domain products are, by nature, older works for which the copyright has expired. That means these free resources online are written in Old English, with theological jargon, and technical Bible issues. They can be a difficult read for someone who is trying to expand into Bible reference materials for the first time.

Of this list, I’d like to highlight two things. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is an older work in the public domain but I use it regularly. It is generally readable, though a little bit technical. And it is loaded with good background information.

That’s why I usually direct people to actual, current reference books that are written for today’s readers. Many of them are written for folks like us instead of scholars. I think

The Holman Bible Dictionary was first produced in the 1990s so it is well-written, up-to-date, and easy to read. Holman released the copyright for it when they came out with a new updated version. My

©2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

Holman Bible Dictionary is my go-to reference book for everything. If you only use one source online, I’d recommend this one. However, it’s also well-worth investing in the new, illustrated version because the pictures and maps provide so much of the information. Holman Bible Dictionary

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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

The product links in this handbook direct you to the product page at Christian Book Distributors. The folks at CBD want me to tell you these are affiliate links, so if you click on a link and happen to make a purchase, I get a small commission. That seems fair, especially since this is a free resource. I hope you found it helpful and thanks for reading.

©2012 Christy Bower. The author grants permission to distribute unaltered print or PDF copies.

How to Build a Bible Reference Library  

Bible reference books can be overwhelming because there are so many choices and so many types of reference books. I’ll help you wade through...

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