The Story of the NLT Study Bible
April 28, 2008 Sean A. Harrison

From the beginning of the NLT translation work in the late 1980s, the Bible editors and translation team had talked about having the NLT scholars help us develop a new study Bible and commentary series. The vision was to further the goals of the NLT itself by giving readers the historical, cultural, and literary context for a clear, accurate, and life-changing understanding of the Bible text.

In 1988, Tyndale published the Life Application Study Bible, using the The Living Bible text. Most study Bibles at that time either focused on details of the language and historical background or were intended to support a particular doctrinal system. The Life Application Study Bible broke new ground by focusing on applying the Bible to life. It included historical background and doctrinal discussion, but with the emphasis on practical application.

As the NLT text was being developed, the Bible team wondered if the Life Application Study Bible would serve as the ideal study Bible for the new text. But as time went on, it became clear that we wanted to develop a study Bible that would focus on helping readers understand the Bible text in its original historical and cultural context, so that they could grasp the significance of Scripture for themselves. There is only so much space in a study Bible. So we set out to develop a study Bible, complementary to the Life Application Study Bible, that would focus on the meaning of the Bible text in its own original context.

In 1996, the NLT was published. I started at Tyndale in February 1997. By April 1998, Mark Norton, Phil Comfort, and I were talking about Tyndale’s desire to produce a study Bible to support the NLT, and thinking together about what the NLT Study Bible should include. We were also talking about what was needed in the world of study Bibles.

There have traditionally been three general categories of study Bibles, those that focus primarily on (1) information, (2) systematic doctrine, or (3) application and devotional reflection.

As we looked around in the late 1990s, very few Study Bibles focused on meaning in context. My first memo about the NLT Study Bible is dated May 18, 1998, and contains the following paragraph:

We see a need on the market for a study Bible which handles the meaning and message of each section of Scripture — not just technical details about words and phrases. Most study Bibles don’t provide this kind of “big picture” help for readers. Because the NLT is meaning-focused, we have a prime opportunity to make the meaning and message of the Bible clear to our readers.

Many study Bibles give short shrift to the world of the Bible—the historical context in which Scripture was first written and read. As a result, people tend to understand the Bible in terms of their own world, not the world in which it was written. We saw a need for a study Bible that would vigorously engage in explaining that world, and what the Bible first meant in it. When people grasp what the Bible meant to its first readers, they are in a good position to understand what it means for them.

We also found that the aim of many study Bibles is to help readers grasp and embrace the doctrinal system of the author of the study materials. We saw the need for a study Bible that would help readers understand the theological meaning of Scripture without forcing Scripture into a doctrinal system. We wanted to help readers of all persuasions to deepen their own systematic understanding of Scripture. Finally, we saw that there was a need for a serious Study Bible to support the NLT text. We could see the success of the Life Application Study Bible and how useful it was for so many people. At the same time, we saw a need for a study Bible that would help readers move more deeply into the world of the Bible and biblical study, using the NLT. How many people have said something like the following? “The NLT is good for reading, but I wouldn’t use it for serious study.” In fact, though, the NLT is ideal for serious study:

  • The NLT removes the barrier of archaic or difficult language, so people are able immediately to understand what the text is saying. The NLT Study Bible does not use space to explain the words of the English text. It uses that space for the more interesting work of going back into the world of the Bible.
  • Because the NLT is so readable, it is also a natural vehicle for focusing on the big-picture meaning of the text. The NLT Study Bible includes study materials that address not just individual verses, but also the paragraph, the section, and the book. We have taken pains to provide notes that help readers understand the meaning of the trees and the forest, not just the leaves and bark.
  • As it turns out, the readability of the NLT perhaps obscures its precision with regard to the meaning of the original text. The NLT provides a precise foundation on which to build a study Bible.
  • Because the NLT translation team crosses denominational boundaries, the translation does not play favorites with Christian doctrine. The NLT provides deep balance among the theological traditions in the church. It is thus an excellent translation to use in working out the theological meaning of Scripture, without the pressure of having a systematic theology imported into the text by the translators.

In 1999 and 2000, I began developing early prototypes of the content features of the NLT Study Bible. We received extensive feedback from Tyndale executives about the prototypes—some of the early prototypes really needed work! In December 2000, there was a meeting at which Mark Taylor said, “I think we are ready to begin working on it. Now we need to find someone who will spearhead the development.” Not having had as much experience with long projects as some of the others at the table, in my youthful exuberance I rashly spoke up: “I’ve thought that’s something that I could do.” And so, with handshakes and well-wishes all around, I began working on the NLT Study Bible full time.

Very early on, Ken Taylor took a great personal interest in the NLT Study Bible project. He read a great many of the early drafts, gave a lot of input on the direction of the study materials, and prayed regularly for those involved in development. After he became unable to continue his work on the project, Mark Taylor took up the mantle of serving as executive editor for the project. Mark has read every word of the NLT Study Bible and has provided a great deal of helpful and encouraging input. He recently said, “Time and again, I found while reading the NLT Study Bible that the study notes answer the questions the average reader will ask while reading the Bible text.”

On Friday, April 25, 2008, the NLT Study Bible was finally finished and sent to the printer, after what could be calculated as a ten-year development process, from first conception to manufacturing. Now the marketing, sales, and publicity teams are going full tilt to get the word out to the public. The NLT Study Bible is scheduled to be available in stores in September, 2008.

In all, we have had around seventy different people involved with the development of the NLT Study Bible—over forty contributing scholars and reviewers, along with all the editors, artists, designers, typesetters, indexers, proofreaders, marketers, and web developers. It is fitting at this point to close with a statement that appears on the NLT Study Bible contributors page:

Many thanks to all who have had a hand in the creation of this study Bible, and most of all the Lord of heaven and earth, who gave us his word and spirit so generously.
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