Bible Study Software: Overview

I find Bible Study software fascinating, primarily because of how helpful it is to me in my feeble efforts to understand the Word of God, but I also have a technical background, and I gravitate toward problems of applying computer science to address real-world needs. I’ve been using and evaluating this kind of software long enough to have something constructive to say about the genre in general, as well as about the specific merits and challenges of the particular packages I use. But I do not pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of all – or even most – of the programs available.

It’s hard to know where to start when considering a purchase of Bible Study software – there are a lot of options out there, often in a confusing array of different configurations, and almost all of which tout satisfied customer testimonials to the effect that the product in question is “the best Bible software in the world!” I hope these pages can be a useful resource for helping people make informed decisions regarding these products – a hope inspired by my desire to see more people utilizing these tools to become not only more informed regarding God’s Word, but also more conformed to it.

Below is a brief description of the Bible Study software market in general. A related page identifies the available product options, classifying them, and providing basic information about each. Other pages provide more detailed evaluations and ratings of products I’m familiar with (analyses of WORDsearch and Olive Tree are currently available). I also provide my criteria for evaluating Bible Study software.

The Bible Study Software Landscape

There are almost as many different versions of Bible Study software available to the English-speaking student as there are English translations of the Bible. Some respectable programs can be had absolutely free, while some other packages can run well in excess of $1,000.

The biggest differentiating price factor among packages – at many points along the price scale – is the bundling of peripheral resources (sometimes called modules, databases, or e-books) such as dictionaries and commentary sets. While there is also significant variation between programs in terms of scope and quality of core program components, these differences are not necessarily reflected proportionally in the price tags. For pretty short money, you can get terrific functionality – as long as you don’t need advanced original language capabilities.

Commercial “Library” Products

The most popular Bible Study programs are commercial packages that serve two related but distinct functions: in part, they function as tools to assist in the analysis and study of the Bible itself, but they also serve as electronic book readers. Besides various Biblical texts, these e-books can consist of everything from lexicons and word studies, to interlinears, to commentaries and study guides, to handbooks and preaching helps, to maps, audio files, devotionals, and theological works. These e-books represent the real revenue stream for these companies, and (with some exceptions), their marketing is focused on offering the base program functionality with subsets of available e-books packaged into numerous tiers.

Unfortunately, most marketing materials – and the rare review – seem to focus on the e-book content of the various tiers that the program is available in, rather than on the program’s ability to perform core Bible Study functions. In over 25 years of being a Bible Study software user and afficionado, I’ve never seen a vendor offer a functional comparison to another vendor’s toolset. While it’s true that some e-books are exclusive offerings of particular publishers, many of them are available across most of the major publishers – at more or less similar pricing – making it difficult to make sound value judgments between programs based on marketing materials.

To a great extent, the real value difference between Bible Study platforms is in how well the core program functionality implements and integrates the various e-book resources into an effective study environment for the user, and that level of analysis is virtually absent from the vendors’ marketing material – and even sometimes from third-party reviews, when you can find them. For my purposes, understanding those programmatic, functional differences is what’s important.

This doesn’t imply that the e-book differences are irrelevant. Some of the vendors produce better e-books than others. There also are some availability differences across products, and these will legitimately drive some purchasing decisions. Some of these resources are much more directly supportive than others of actual Bible Study activities, such as lexicons, grammars, original language texts, analytical and critical apparatus, even topical and xref indexes. I think there’s an important distinction to be made between these functionally significant resources in a library, and those that are of value because of the opinions they contain. After all, if you’re primarily interested in having an electronic library of your favorite commentaries for easy pasting of quoted text into your sermons or lessons, that’s well and fine, but of course it’s not really Bible Study.

This highlights one of the problems I see in the contemporary Bible Study software industry, and that is the lack of e-book standards. This is a touchy subject in the industry, because it was attempted back in the 90’s. Several of the major vendors formed a consortium defining an e-book standard called STEP, but this was developed before the ascendancy of Internet technologies, and has since faded into oblivion. Admittedly, the rate of change in electronic technologies would seem to militate against the prospect of a successful long-term standard for e-books, but there’s no reason a standard cannot be evolved in a coordinated manner.

Too many vendors (including Logos, the 800-pound gorilla of the industry) have self-interested reasons to reject any attempt at standardizing book format, but I think these reasons are short-sighted, and exposes the industry to the risk of having market pressures impose an external de facto standard on it, developed by an entity unconcerned with the complexities of Bible Study tools (think Kindle, as an obvious example). There’s also the threat of platform obsolescence if owners of proprietary formats go under, so there are multiple reasons for consumers to think twice before investing large sums of money in e-books. I know it’s a huge concern for me. The industry needs a plan that reduces consumer risk, and protects the technology from bowdlerization.

Textual Analysis Specialists

Another set of products exist that are not focused on selling libraries of e-books, but are designed specifically for analysis of Biblical texts – primarily original language texts. Some of the library-oriented products have analysis tools that are comparable to what these specialized programs provide, while these specialized programs will have some small subset of the usual extra-Biblical modules most useful for supporting exegesis, but there is a complete mindset difference between the two categories. These programs have much to recommend them for the serious Bible student – professional or otherwise – as they provide the requisite powerful tools without the added baggage (and cost) of the libraries.

Free Bible Study Programs

There are a number of free Bible Study programs available, and they are a mixed bag in terms of quality. Some have been around for a long time. These tend to be similar to the library-oriented commercial programs, having numerous free (and usually also commercial/premium) e-book modules available, though the scope of the available libraries are generally smaller, and the program functionality is generally inferior to the commercial programs.

It is popular nowadays to criticize these programs for providing so many public domain e-book resources (being considered outdated and hence of poor quality), but it is this critic’s view that if an “outdated” Matthew Henry (just to use him for an oft-cited example) is to be considered today such a poor interpreter of the Eternal Word, then he couldn’t possibly have been any better during his own era – a thought that I hope would give pause to those who turn around and place such value in what will turn out to be the next generation’s poor, outdated, public domain commentaries. Contra the revolving trend-setters, orthodoxy never gets old, and true wisdom never grows stale…

The Rest

Finally, there are a number of websites providing an on-line Bible Study environment. Some of these are independent, while some are provided by major Bible Study software publishers. None of these are ready to replace desktop applications, but they can perhaps be of some use in a pinch. There are also a number of specialty programs out there that don’t really cut it for Bible Study, but provide some related function that involves the use of electronic Bible texts.