What Are Handbooks?

Handbooks summarize the Bible, and they are an important foundation for any reference library. A Bible handbook is a kind of survey of the Bible or an introduction to the Bible. Usually, handbooks are divided so that each chapter is devoted to a single book of the Bible or perhaps to a group of smaller books (like the minor prophets or 1-3 John). For each book of the Bible you’ll get an outline of the book, an introduction to the book’s major themes, some information perhaps on the book’s original historical setting, and then usually a summary of the book’s content. A way of visualizing the purpose of a handbook is that handbooks present a kind of bird’s-eye-view of the Bible’s content and themes.

Because of this, handbooks answer big-picture questions:

  • What is the book of Amos about?
  • What period of time does the book of Genesis cover?
  • What are some of the most important verses in the Epistle to the Romans?
  • What part of Revelation do the two beasts appear and how does this fit into the larger structure of Revelation?

It can be very difficult to understand a book of the Bible, especially one of the big prophetic books like Jeremiah, if you go into it completely unprepared. But if you go into it with some idea of what you can expect, there will already be in your brain a placeholder for all the new data to fit into. Click here to see a list of handbooks.

Who Needs a Handbook?

This means that handbooks are especially useful for beginners. People often wonder what sort of resource is good for a new believer or for someone who is just now really trying to get into the Bible? Aside from the Bible, a Bible handbook is absolutely one of the best things you could get for a new believer. Student or compact handbooks are specially designed for just this situation.

But handbooks are useful for more than just beginners. Very few people are equally familiar with all parts of the Bible. We spend different seasons of our lives focusing on certain books more than others, and that’s okay. But in the process of focusing on one part of the Bible, you might forget some things about another part of the Bible. So a handbook is useful as a way of refamiliarizing yourself parts of the Bible you haven’t studied in a while. For the experienced student of the Bible, a full-size Bible handbook will be more useful than a student or compact handbook.

Handbooks are mostly not translation-specific, meaning if you are committed to the King James Version you don’t have to worry about conflicts or incompatibilities. Some handbooks will have “KJV” or “NIV” in the title, but all that means is that when the Bible is quoted, the titular translation is used. It does not impact the real content of the handbook.

The only situation where which version of the Bible you have makes a difference is in regards to the Apocrypha. Most Bible handbooks are published for a Protestant audience and assume the smaller Protestant canon. So if you need a handbook for the apocryphal books, you can do one of two things.

  1. Find a handbook that includes the Apocrypha, like Jerome Kodell’s The Catholic Bible Study Handbook, which is both a Bible handbook as well as a book about how to study the Bible.
  2. Get an annotated Apocrypha, like The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. Even if you’re not Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican, if you’ve ever had an interest in the Apocrypha, I highly recommend The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. The commentary and book introductions contain everything you might expect from a handbook.

One other group that handbooks are consistently useful for is teachers of Bible studies, Sunday School teachers, or small groups leaders. As a teacher even if you’re familiar with your text, you know that your students may not be. And sometimes bridging the gap between your knowledge and their knowledge can be difficult. Consulting a handbook and using it to structure your teaching can be very helpful and time-saving.

Surveys or introductions are kind of a sub-genre of handbook used in colleges for undergraduate survey courses. Atlases are specialized handbooks that focus on geography and history.

Click here to see a list of handbooks.