A study Bible is likely a reference Bible, but a reference Bible is not necessarily a study Bible. The reference part of the name refers to cross references which are footnotes to other passages which are provided to be of help in understanding the passage you are reading. The basic idea behind them is the old adage: the Bible is its own best interpreter. The footnotes are usually indicated by superscript letters and are found either in the center column or a side column of the page. Better mobile software like OliveTree will also have cross references which bring up pop-up windows. A reference Bible will have these cross references but lack the commentary of a study Bible. Most study Bible have cross references too. Cross references are also independent of translator notes which provide alternate translations or alternate manuscript readings.
Several things need to be kept in mind as a user of cross references. Cross references are not inspired. They will reflect the doctrinal orientation of the compiler, and so they must be tested just like any commentary on the text. Jack P. Lewis gives an example of this problem. One set of cross references link antichrist/antichrists of 1 John 2:18, 22, 4:3, and 2 John 1:7 with the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The linking of these two things belongs to premillennialism/dispensationalism.1 For the reader trying to understand either one of these passages, the linking of them by cross reference will likely bring confusion not clarity.
The other problem that Lewis notes is when cross references to English words are not actually corresponding occurrences of the same Greek or Hebrew words, and as he says, “… merely lead the reader along the arbitrary choices of English words made by translators.”2 The point is that like commentary, the user of cross references must be cautious and test things against scripture itself. We must always check the context of the cross reference to make certain that it is actually talking about the same thing as the passage we started with. Also, beware that a cross reference may refer to only a part of a verse and not to the whole verse. Finally, if all we are doing is going from one cross reference to another, we may be failing to study the text at hand. We may end up with a string of passages which we don’t understand in context. Cross references may at times be helpful, but they are not always needed.
How can cross references be helpful?
- They may provide the Old Testament scripture reference that is being quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. The New Testament author often intends us to read more of the context.
- The may provide parallel passages to a narrative. In Matthew 14:13 which begins the feeding of the 5000, the ESV gives a cross reference of Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-13. These are the parallel passages of the feeding of the 5000 in the other gospels. A similar situation occurs with 1 and 2 Kings having many parallels to 1 and 2 Chronicles.
- They may provide additional passages for a theme. The NASB on Deuteronomy 4:2 which deals with adding to and subtracting from God’s commands provides the following cross references: Deut 12:32; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:18.
There are different systems of cross references. These will vary from translation to translation and from publisher to publisher. This warns us that not all cross-referencing systems will be the same. Used wisely, they provide a basic tool for Bible study.
1Jack P. Lewis, “Are Cross References Reliable?” Questions You Have Asked About Bible Translations, pp. 182. Dr. Lewis’s book chapter came from a Gospel Advocate article. It is well worth reading, and can be found online at http://lakeside-church-of-christ.org/articles/guest/guest.php?id=cross-ref [accessed 12/14/2018].
2Ibid, pp. 183-184.