Your Home Library: One Dozen Books to Build Biblical Literacy

I always encourage young people to start their own, personal libraries — to begin with just one shelf in their bedrooms to place books worth keeping for a long time, some for even a lifetime. Whatever our ages are, we can equip ourselves with excellent resources to help us disciple ourselves in Christ and to guide us in whatever we read.

In our last post, I presented six points (guideposts, navigator’s criteria) to guide the Christian reader. You may wonder why my first point would be Biblical Literacy. Employing our ship/ocean metaphor that I set up in the last post, I am identifying Biblical Literacy as the anchor to ground us, the ballast to stabilize us, and the rudder to guide our vessels — as Christ-followers, thinking and interacting with what we read, whatever we may be reading. Therefore, I’d like to offer you a concise bibliography of core books to build your biblical base. You may have a number of these or some similar to them. You may find some here that you may want to add to your wish list. A person growing in biblical literacy and alert thinking will want to use books such as these.

On a reading voyage? You need a compass.


You can read about these books or order any of the following dozen on I’m not providing the full bibliographic information because it is so easy to find these online via the names and authors. You can get older editions of some which may be cheaper. You may find some of these in second hand bookstores. (If you find one of these used for a small price and in good condition, and you already have it, you may want to buy it to give away. I like to do this.)



A Recommended Biblical Literacy Bookshelf  (The Starter’s Set)

  1. The Open Study Bible available in  NASB, NKJV and KJV*
  2. The One Year Bible available in NIV, NLT, KJV, and NKJV*
  3. The Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible available in ESV, NASB, KJV, and NKJV*
  4. The Word of Promise Audio Bible (presented in NKJV)
  5. 30 Days to Understanding the Bible by Max Anders
  6. Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks
  7. Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Timelines (or a Bible atlas)
  8. Young’s Analytical Concordance  or The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance
  9. Vine’s Expository Dictionary or Zodhiates’ The Complete Word Studies (OT and NT editions)
  10. Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays
  11. Believer’s Bible Commentary by William MacDonald
  12. The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns

In this post, let’s quickly consider the first half dozen.

The first four are Bibles. I like to have them in different, good translations .  The NASB, NKJV, and ESV are my favorites.** I enjoy the NIV devotionally, but generally not for study.

The Open Bible is a study Bible with lots of explanatory notes, articles, charts, and maps. There are other good study Bibles. I like the clear and solid foundation this one offers. (Here is a YouTube introduction to this Bible: .) This study Bible includes sections called “How to Study the Bible”,  “The Christian’s Guide to the New Life”, “Biblical Cyclopedic Index”, and a “Visual Survey of the Bible”, among so many other helps. It is easy to distinguish the Bible’s text from the notes.

The One Year Bible is a great daily reader. Divided into daily readings, it presents several OT chapters, then several NT chapters, then one psalm, and about two verses from Proverbs. You can read it a number of ways: straight through in one year or as long as it takes; just the OT readings and the psalm with the proverb one year; just the NT readings and the psalm with the proverb (going through this twice) the next year. I have used it about four years and love it. I have it in two translations. It is not a study Bible but is for regular, devotional reading.

I read with colored pencils in hand (sometimes a yellow highlighter, but colored pencils are usually better than highlighters on the thin Bible pages and I like using different colors).  I engage better with the passage when I highlight key and impactful words. I also then know where I’ve been in this reader Bible. Re-reading passages I’ve already highlighted helps me to note what once struck me. Sometimes I mark notes in the columns, but not much with the One Year Bible. Again, it’s a reader Bible, not a study Bible.

The Open Bible and The Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (KWSB) are study Bibles. The first one makes a great, first study Bible and the second one contains original language study tools. Note caveat below.+  I like to use both a pen and colored pencils with these Bibles. I use the reference tools in them to help me dig deeper. Don’t worry that there are tools you may not be able to use in the KWSB. Use the ones that make sense to you. Explore and experiment. Ask others how they use them. You grow into these Bibles, so to speak. Never be discouraged. Any step you take is a step forward from where you were (if you are looking for biblical meaning and application, and are not reading your own views/desires into the text).

The KWSB is a different kind of study Bible, one that can unfold more light on passages because it includes several concise dictionaries in the back, among other helps. I like to have this Bible with me in church and in Bible studies, because I can look things up while I listen to the preacher or teacher. My attention is more deeply engaged as I mentally interact with the teacher, even if I can’t ask questions or comment. I’m thinking more discerningly and hopefully, more reverently and worshipfully.+

To learn more about this Bible, check out the following (and listen to the short video):

“Faith comes by hearing the Word,” Romans 10:17 tells us. The Word of Promise Audio Bible (NKJV) helps you to experience the Bible as history — real events in time and space. Sometimes we read for ideas and miss the concreteness of Scripture. This oral Bible, over 90 listening hours, is dramatized with individual voices (600 actors and actresses) reading the various parts, along with sound effects and background music, and a beautifully delivered narration. Yet, it is the reading of the Bible without additions or changes to the text. It is not overdone; it pulls you into the text.

Listen to it in the car. Listen to it with your family or your spouse. Listen to it by yourself while meal prepping or quietly before bed. I play it in my Sunday school class while my students follow along in the text (as we have a set of NKJV Bibles in our classroom, so we’re all on the same page). Listening to it can change the way you read the text  when you come back to it later using just your printed Bible.

30 Days to Understanding the Bible  and  Living By the Book should be read in this order. The first will give you a big picture understanding of the layout and organization of the Scriptures, the locations of the events (maps), the narrative flow and historical timetables, and finally, ten main doctrines of the Scriptures. Forget 30 days! There are 30 chapters, and as easy as they are to read, you probably will not do them in 30 days. Each chapter has fill in the blank reviews to keep you engaged and to aid your memory.

Living By the Book teaches you a very practical and personal way to understand, interpret, and apply Scripture based upon the inductive method of thinking and learning (gathering points of data, the specifics, before drawing conclusions, the generalizations or the biblical principles, in order to apply to your life). I wish I could describe more! Look it up and check it out. The main author, Howard G. Hendricks (1924-2013) was a stellar Bible teacher and seminary professor, greatly loved and admired for generations.

For the Christ-follower, to be a good reader first means to be a good Bible reader. We aim to anchor our minds in scriptural depths, to balance our ships with biblical ballast, and to guide our perceptions of all literature, all relationships, and all of life by the rudder of divine revelation.

In the next post, we’ll briefly look at the second half of these dozen books to help build biblical literacy!

On land, in the air, and on the sea, may the Lord direct our paths. . . .

Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee.

I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, as much as in all riches.

I will mediate on Thy precepts, and regard Thy ways.

I shall delight in Thy statutes; I shall not forget Thy word.

Psalm 119: 11, 14-16


* Translations mentioned in this post: King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), New International Version (NIV), and The Living Translation (TLV).

+ This Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, first edited by Dr. Spiros Zodhiates, as well as his Hebrew and Greek dictionaries are especially useful for those who have not learned the original languages, and I am one of these. Care must be taken in using Bible dictionaries, for it is tempting to take the entire range of meaning of a word and apply it to a passage, reading more or other into a text than what is in the contexts, and thus abusing the text. Rules of interpretation need to be learned, but there’s no space for such detail in this post.




Categories: Christian Reader, Spiritual Growth | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Your Home Library: One Dozen Books to Build Biblical Literacy

  1. Marty and Brenda Zuidervaart

    My, oh my, Dr. Olsen. How practical and helpful you are in disclosing leading resources for literacy-building! Although a doctorate validates an expertise in a particular subject, your education and vocational ministries over the years have given you such impressive breadth. Thank you, thank you. Just yesterday I was able to share about the Word of Promise Audio Bible with an elderly painting customer who can no longer read because of the damage of a nerve caused by Lyme disease. Marty

    • kltolsen

      Thank you for your encouragement, Marty! I appreciate that you forwarded this post to two of your friends! It was so good to receive input from one of them via email! I would love to hear from more of JNC’s readers!
      And I wonder how your elderly painting customer is doing and how he/she is healing from Lyme disease (which my daughter, Amanda, has). I hope he or she will try out the Word of Promise Audio Bible, as you suggested. Of course, there are other audio Bibles (often free online), but this one is special. What a delight to hear the Word read (and dramatized) aloud! Recently, we gave a NT Word of Promise set to a family to share with their children! We hope it deeply blesses this family. There is power in the Word!

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