I teach secular Bible studies classes online. This means I teach children and teens to read the Bible and look at the Bible stories as literature written by people over a specific period of time, a couple thousand years ago. I ask students to have a copy of the Bible available during class and for their homework. I encourage them to have a study Bible. I strongly discourage the use of children’s Bibles. Children’s Bibles are retellings of the Bible stories meant for children. The stories are often arranged in the same order the stories appear in the Bible, but with only specific stories included.
First, I’ll admit there are some things that make children’s Bibles useful. They are easier for children to read and children can learn more stories in a shorter period of time because of that. They also tend to omit the non-child friendly stories and details that exist in the normal Bibles. However, the downsides of using children’s Bibles outweigh the benefits. Here are a few of them:
1) Children do not learn about the structure of the Bible from a children’s Bible. If you’re a secular parent wanting your child to understand the Bible for literary purposes, you should ensure your child understands that the Bible is composed of books, which are divided into chapters and then verses. Most study Bibles will have a list of the names of the books in the order they appear and a child should be able to use that list to find where one book is relative to another.
2) Children’s Bibles often create new stories by combining multiple versions of a story. The most obvious example of this is when they combine Luke and Matthew’s descriptions of Jesus’ birth to have a story where both shepherds and wise men visit Jesus. If you want to take a scholarly approach the Bible, you’re not going to want to start with a jumbled up story.
3) Children’s Bibles miss the humour and poetry of the originals. If you’re going to study the Bible for historical and literary purposes, you should take some time to look at the poetry. Explore the way in which Biblical poetry is based not on rhymes or alliteration but on couplets and “thought-rhymes.” Note the literary structure of books like Ruth, and the subtle humour of Ruth’s responses to Naomi and Boaz, where she takes what they say and reflects it back at them with a slight change (such as in Ruth 2:12-13).
4) Most importantly, children’s Bibles retellings of Bible stories in order to convey specific messages such as “trust in God” or “God loves you” or “obey God.” Often the message is not conveyed in the original passage or at least is not the only available interpretation of that passage. The result is that the children’s Bibles can convey a more unified religious message than reading and studying the Bible directly. Modern Christian editors are projecting their own faith onto the ancient texts and it obscures the ancient texts.
I suggest using a study Bible, but what does that mean? I recommend a Bible with footnotes about translation questions. A good study Bible will have notes to point out little details where translations are uncertain and allow a person to recognize the uncertainty that exists, even now, as to what the Bible says. There are inexpensive copies of the New Revised Standard Version that are great. If you’re really serious about Biblical studies then Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible is great too, but probably more expensive than most secular families need.
Besides children’s Bibles, there are two other Bibles of which one should be cautious. The Good News Bible was written to be easily accessible for those with poor reading skills. The result of the simplification of language is at times somewhat comical, such as in Matthew 5:3, where it says “Happy are those who mourn, for God shall comfort them” instead of “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Then there is the King James Version of the Bible, with its somewhat archaic language. Many people assume that this version is more accurate or original than modern translations. This is not true. Scholars have come a long way in understanding the subtly of the ancient Hebrew language and grammar since the 17th century. Read the King James version if you want to acclimatize oneself to early 17th century English, but recognize that it is not the best for studying the Bible itself.