There are literally dozens of software packages that all promise to help us study the Bible better. In this article I want to focus on the best of those that are aimed at Christians who have little or no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, and are studying the bible for their own spiritual growth, or to teach in Sunday School classes or youth groups.
Most software companies produce a range of packages. The cheapest come with a minimum number of resources – perhaps a few translations of the Bible, together with some out-of-copyright commentaries and dictionaries. The more expensive will come with dozens of English Bibles, and perhaps hundreds of other resources, including Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and interlinears (Bibles that have the Greek/Hebrew text printed alongside the English text).
Before we get to the strengths and weaknesses of each programme, let me say a few words about some of the features that all the packages will support:
- Reading: You can read the bible and associated resources, and can have lots of resources (e.g. the Bible, a commentary and a dictionary) on screen at the same time. As you move around the Bible, your commentaries will automatically update to the reference you are currently looking at. Some programs allow you to read multiple Bibles at the same time.
- Searching: All the packages listed here will allow you to search for words and phrases in the Bible, and in the other resources you own.
- Notes: You can write your own notes and attach them to a Bible verse.
- Maps: You can view maps of the Bible lands, often with places linked to the verses which mention them.
- Strong’s numbers: These numbers make it easy to look up the definitions of Greek/Hebrew words.
e-Sword is one of the most popular Bible study software packages, and it’s easy to see why. It’s free to download, and has 25 English bibles (including the ESV), plus dozens of commentaries (including Matthew Henry and Keil & Delitzsch), 14 dictionaries, nine volumes of the Church Fathers and several other books. All these are free, but you can also add some paid-for resources such as the NIV (£20), or NKJV (£10).
e-Sword is a little clunky, and if you have lots of resources the display can seem cluttered. Nevertheless, it’s hard to get lost, and everything works fairly intuitively. Unfortunately you can’t search all your resources at the same time, however, each has to be searched individually. On the plus side, there is a Windows Mobile version, so you can take your library with you if you have a Windows Mobile device. There are also several non-English language Bibles available, including the Revised New Welsh Bible.
Verdict: e-Sword is remarkable software. You get an awful lot for nothing, and have the added advantage of being able to purchase in-copyright books such as modern Bible translations for relatively little. If you can live with the dated interface, and only need a moderate number of resources, what are you waiting for?
- The Word is very quick and has a nice interface. It has less resources than e-Sword, and no add-ons, but is slightly easier to use.
- Bible Explorer is a cut-down version of WORDsearch (see below). It only comes with a handful of resources, but you can download hundreds more, also for free, or purchase WORDsearch modules. The quality of the free resources is quite mixed, however, and doesn’t include several resources you can get for free (or nearly-free) elsewhere, such as Calvin, Matthew Henry, Vine, etc.
SwordSearcher is excellent value for money, at just $50 (about £35). It includes 10 English versions, more than 20 commentaries (including Barnes, Calvin, Keil-Delitzsch, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, etc.) 10 dictionaries, hundreds of maps, and several other books. There are no additional modules available, and no modern Bible versions or commentaries. But although they are all out of copyright, these are high-quality resources, – the publisher hasn’t simply stuffed the product full of light resources you’ll rarely use, simply in order make the product look bigger. It is also excellent value for money. Just adding Calvin’s Commentaries to WORDsearch or Logos would cost you twice as much as buying SwordSearcher 5 with Calvin included.
Another strength of SwordSearcher is the links between the various resources. It is very easy to move between the various resources, and (for example) to find dictionary entries that relate to the verse you are currently studying. Even more impressive is the search facility, which is not only incredibly quick, but also very comprehensive.
Verdict: SwordSearcher is the best of the packages that focus on out-of-copyright resources. It’s cheap, fast, easy-to-use, and has higher quality resources that all of its competitors.
Worth paying for
Logos is to Bible software what John Lewis is to shopping – wonderful choice, but sometimes bewildering. It has far more than you could ever need, and often more than you can really afford. In fact, Logos has almost every resource offered by all the other publishers combined (except Pradis), and plenty more besides.
There are two major downsides. One is cost. The most expensive “base” package in Logos is Scholar’s Library Gold, which costs almost £1,000, and even that includes ‘only’ 700 of the 9,000 titles available. The rest have to be added at additional cost. Having said that, few users will need Scholar’s Library Gold. A far cheaper option is the Bible Study Library at £180. This still includes 18 English Bible versions, and over 150 other resources, which are a nice mix of contemporary and historical.
The second downside is complexity. To get the most out of Logos you have to understand how best to use it, and this will require an investment of time. Don’t misunderstand me. Logos have made the software incredible easy to use ‘out of the box’. You can just type in a bible verse, topic, or even a Greek/Hebrew word, and very soon all your resources will be searched, with the results presented in a very readable format. There’s plenty you’ll be able to do with Logos without learning all its quirks and powerful features – it’s just that if you do learn them you’ll be able to do a whole lot more. Thankfully Logos offer a great deal of help through their excellent telephone support and online tutorials.
Verdict: If your budget will stretch to it, and you’re willing to commit some time to learn the software, Logos is about as good as it gets. It’s particularly suitable if you think your study will deepen in time and you will later want access to more thorough resources. But if you struggle with computers, or aren’t able to commit the time to learn, you may be better off with one of the alternatives.
- WORDsearch 8, £35 to £350: WORDsearch is simple, has dozens of resources, and is very expandable (though like all packages apart from Logos, few scholarly resources are available). A typical package is the “Thompson Chain-Reference Leaders Library” which can be downloaded online for about £150. It includes 16 Bible versions (including KJV, ESV, NIV and NKJV) and 134 other reference works, almost all of which are out of copyright ‘classics’. There are hundreds more resources available, many of which are recent publications. However, these add-ons can be expensive – the 47-volume set of Welwyn commentaries is £350.
- PocketBible, £35-£135: Despite the name, PocketBible is available for desktop computers, as well as pocket computers (you need a Palm, iPhone or Windows Mobile device), and resources can be shared between the desktop and pocket versions. It offers excellent value – even the cheapest package includes the NIV and 12 other Bibles, though there are not many other resources available. PocketBible is relatively simple to use, partly because it has a fixed display. This makes it easy to find your resources (they’re always in the same place!), but it can be annoying when you can’t stop resources you don’t need cluttering up your display. If you value simplicity above all, it could be the right choice.
- QuickVerse, £20 – £550: A terrific modern interface, and many excellent resources, even in the mid-range QuickVerse Deluxe (£65) which has 226 books including the ESV and NKJV. However, it has several annoying quirks and is missing some important resources (including Calvin’s commentaries). As one reviewer put it, “QuickVerse is very much like a few girls I dated in college. Very attractive, but the more time you spend with them the more you wish you were with someone else.”
- PC Study Bible, £35 – £400: PC Study Bible is a reasonably number of resources (between 51 and 147), most of which are actually quite useful. The interface makes it easy to find cross-references between resources, though it is a little idiosyncratic in places. It’s also rather overpriced, though thankfully the publisher often has sales, so if you buy at the right time, you could get some easy to use software at a good price.
- Pradis, prices vary: Pradis is a frustrating product created by Zondervan. It is only averagely competent, and its purpose seems to be largely to keep Zondervan electronic titles in-house. This means Pradis has several exclusive resources, but also mean it is lacking resources from several other publishers (it doesn’t even have the ESV or NKJV, for example). Best avoided if possible.
Wait, there’s more!
If you’re a Mac user, QuickVerse is available for the Mac, and Logos soon will be. There’s also a Mac-only product called Accordance which costs between £35 and £2,000. It’s considered to strike a helpful balance between ease of use and power. If you want software for free, you should try MacSword, which is similar to e-Sword, although not as friendly.
There are also an increasing number of online tools, so if don’t have your only access to a computer is at the library or a friend’s home, they could be very helpful. The best are The Sword and The Blue Letter Bible. If you just want to read the Bible in many versions, try www.biblegateway.com
Finally, one further package deserves a mention: Ilumina Gold. It’s marketed as a “digitally animated encyclopaedia suite”. It’s good for bringing the Bible to life through animated sequences of Bible stories, virtual reality tours of important Bible places (e.g. the temple), and photos and maps of Bible lands. It’s therefore potentially helpful for families wanting to encourage children in Bible study. It’s available for Mac and PC.