The ESV Study Bible - A Review
I still remember getting my first study Bible. It was many years ago, probably in the late 80’s, that my parents gave me the gift of a brand new NIV Study Bible. I used that Bible daily for many years though it was eventually replaced by a New Geneva Study Bible in the NKJV translation and after that by a Reformation Study Bible in the ESV. Today, if you drop by my home in the early morning, you are likely to see me reading from the Literary Study Bible, also in the ESV. On the bookcase in my office I have a copy of the Archaeological Study Bible (NIV), the MacArthur Study Bible (NASB) and The Apologetics Study Bible (HCSB). A visit to a local Christian bookstore will turn up many more and a search of publishers’ “Coming Soon” lists will show more still. Truly there is no lack of study Bibles available to us. And into this crowded field steps a newcomer, the ESV Study Bible.
Though I typically will not review a book until I have read every word, I have had to make an obvious exception for this title. Reading every word of the 20,000 study notes and the more than 50 articles would be a time-consuming task. This Bible’s 2,752 pages boast almost 2 million words. This makes it around 700 pages longer than most of the other study Bibles available today. However, I have had access to the complete text for several weeks now and have taken many opportunities to read through parts of the Bible.
The ESV team has done an excellent job of generating excitement for the ESV Study Bible and particularly so among the type of person who tends to read my book reviews. So in this review I will try to cut through the hype and, to the best of my ability, judge this new Bible on its own merits. After all, at $35 or $40 for the hardcover edition (and upwards of $200 for the premium calfskin edition) this Bible is not an insignificant investment.
How to Use a Study Bible
There are some Christians who feel that study Bibles are not ultimately helpful to Christians. After all, we have been given the Holy Spirit who promises to us that He will help us to know and to apply the Scriptures. While I understand these concerns, I feel that study Bibles can be immensely helpful and especially so to those who do not have extensive reference libraries or extensive theological training. However, these Bibles must be used properly. The biblical text must book-end any study of Scripture. The Introduction to the ESV Study Bible says it well. “The best way to use a study Bible, therefore, is always to begin and end with the words of the Bible. We should always begin by reading the Bible’s actual words, seeking with our hearts and our minds to understand these words and apply them to our lives. Then, after starting with the words of the Bible itself, we can turn to the study notes and many other study Bible resources for information about the background to the text, for the meaning of puzzling words or phrases, and for connections to other parts of the Bible. Finally, we should return again to the Bible itself, reading it with a new and deeper understanding, asking God to speak through his Word to the situation of our life and to draw us near to himself.” We will proceed through this review with the understanding that the notes and maps and articles and cross-references within any study Bible, helpful though they may be, are only supplementary to the words of God.
It goes without saying that the heart of the ESV Study Bible is the English Standard Version. This is considered by many biblical scholars to be a superior translation of the Bible and it is fast becoming the de facto translation amongst conservative and Reformed Christians. For the purposes of this review I will not defend or criticize the ESV as a translation. However, it bears mention that, while I am not as dogmatic as some when it comes to Bible translations, I do feel that the ESV is the best translation available today. As I understand the issues, it represents the best combination of readability and faithful translation. It is a joy to read and I find it as simple as any translation to memorize. While there are several other excellent English translations available, the ESV is top of the class.
Look & Feel
The ESV Study Bible has launched with eight editions: Hardcover, TruTone Nat Brown, TruTone Classic Black, Black Bonded Leather, Burgundy Bonded Leather, Black Genuine Leather, Burgundy Genuine Leather and Premium Calfskin Leather.
In any edition the ESV Study Bible looks great. It is contemporary in its coloring (white is dominant with orange accents in the hardcover) and in the traiangle which shows up throughout (on the cover, to mark headings, and even as a bullet for lists of information). The rectangle has no deeper significance than a simple design element. In an interesting but effective design decision, the TruTone editions have this triangle stitched to the cover. The leather editions have “ESV” in large gold letters on the spine with “Study Bible,” “English Standard Version” and “Crossway” in smaller gold type. The TruTone has the same text but with the “ESV” embossed. The hardcover features black and orange backgrounds on the spine with the text printed over top. The standard ESV guarantee applies to these Bibles, meaning that a customer who discovers manufacturing defects during normal use can return the Bible to have it replaced with one of equal or greater value.
The Bible is made to be durable. It is smyth sewn which is the binding process considered by many to be the best and longest-lasting method. It allows the Bible to lie flat even on page one and on page 2,752 (at least in the TruTone). It is printed on “high-opacity, high-quality French Bible paper” and in a single-column format with the cross-references in the inside margin. The paper is thin and light but still sturdy. My two year-old put the Bible to the test when she inadvertently stepped on it while it was lying open. The page wrinkled under her heel but did not tear. I also learned from her that chewing gum can be removed from the cover of the TruTone while permanent marker cannot. The fonts are very dark and easy to read with a heavy black serif font for the biblical text and a thin black sans-serif for the notes and cross-references. The page headings are in a bold gray with page numbers in a thin gray. Chapter numbers are a large gray serif font while headings are italicized black sans-serif. The pages display a fair bit of bleed-through where, when you look at a page, you can see the ink showing through from the previous page or two. Most of us are accustomed to this bleed-through in our Bibles. Where it is a bit more apparent and distracting is where it shows through on the maps and illustrations.
One feature that has received much attention in the ESV Study Bible is its use of color. Most study Bibles offer maps and illustrations only in grayscale. The ESV Study Bible, though, offers full-color illustrations and maps. This is quite a nice feature. The splashes of color throughout, including colored highlighting and shading, are unexpected to my eye but very effective. Though the standard glossy maps in the back of the Bible are superior in quality to the ones scattered throughout, even the smaller maps are nicely done and provide important geographical context without having to slip to the Bible’s final pages. The illustrations, commissioned specifically for this project, are very well done and nicely supplement the notes.
ESV Study Bible Online
The ESV Study Bible is one of only a couple of study Bibles to offer an extensive online component to accompany the Bible. Included with each Bible is a registration code that will allow the customer to access the ESV Online Study Bible. There they will find the complete text of the Bible along with all of the study notes, articles, maps, and all the other features of the Bible. Unique online features include the ability to create and save personalized online notes; to search and follow interactive links between notes, maps, articles, charts, timelines, illustrations, and cross-references; and to listen to audio recordings of the ESV. It adds interactive features that are only possible in a computer-based environment. While the online component is a useful addition to the Bible (and a free one!), at this time it seems under-developed and I suspect many readers will find that they do not refer to it very often.
Each book of the Bible begins with an extensive introduction. This may include sections dealing with Time, Date and Title; Author; Theme; Key Themes; Purpose, Occasion and Background; Literary Features; Outline; and so on. Particularly important is the History of Salvation Summary which sets each of the books within the context of the wider body of Scripture and hence within the history of salvation. Introductions may also include timelines, maps, and notes on literary features specific to that book. In every case, the reader will receive a thorough explanation as to the book’s authorship, purpose and context in God’s plan of salvation.
The text notes vary in density but typically comprise about half of each page in the New Testament and perhaps a third in the Old Testament. They focus primarily on explanation and rarely on application. In one handy feature, highlighted notes correspond to primary points in the outline while highlighted verses and headings within the notes correspond to secondary points in the outline.
The ESV Study Bible has been produced by as good a group of scholars as any study Bible. The General Editor is Wayne Grudem, the Theological Editor is J.I. Packer, the Old Testament Editor is C. John Collins and the New Testament Editor is Thomas Schreiner. The study note contributors represent a broad cross-section of reputable Evangelical scholars. The articles included within the Bible have been contributed by some well-known pastors and scholars, including John Piper, David Powlison, Darrell Bock, Leland Ryken, R. Kent Hughes, Daniel Wallace, and many more.
One concern people are likely to have when considering a new study Bible concerns the theological perspective offered in the notes. Does this particular study Bible take a Reformed or Arminian position on salvation? A complementarian or egalitarian perspective on gender roles? An amillennial or premillennial position on the end times? I looked through many of the notes seeking what this Bible says on some of the more common controversies: end times, spiritual gifts and soteriology. I found this an interesting comparison with the Reformation Study Bible. It seems to me that the Reformation Study Bible came from a much more narrowly-defined theological position; it was Reformed, it was cessationist, it was amillennial. The ESV Study Bible, on the other hand, offers a wider or less-defined perspective. Where the doctrine is clear and undisputed among Evangelicals, so too are the notes. But where doctrines are controversial and within the area of Christian freedom or disputable matters, the notes tend not to take a firm position, even when the author or editor is firmly in one camp or the other. Whether this is positive or negative may well depend on the individual reader.
To satisfy my curiosity, I opened my NIV Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, MacArthur Study Bible and ESV Study Bible and compared their notes on several areas of controversial theology—end times, predestination and spiritual gifts. None of these Bibles offered notes that were unbiblical so I was left looking for the differences in perspective. In general I found that the MacArthur Study Bible offered the most defined position. This makes good sense as it represents the position of a single individual. This was followed by the Reformation Study Bible which offers the position of many individuals but each of them drawn from a very consistent theological position. The ESV Study Bible came next, offering a charitable but open view on most of these issues. The NIV Study Bible seemed almost to shy away from some of the issues. So while it is clear that the ESV Study Bible is not distinctly Reformed in its position, neither is it Arminian. It is not cessationist or continuationist and is neither amillennial nor premillennial. In fact, it seems as if it emulates the parent who tells one of his children to cut the last piece of cake in half and the other to choose the first piece. In many cases a person from one perspective wrote the notes while a person from the other perspective screened them. This ensures the notes maintain both charity and some degree of objectivity in those areas of dispute.
Having looked at the areas of dispute, I would not hesitate to recommend the ESV Study Bible to either new or mature Christians. The matters at the heart of the faith are described and defended while the matters of lesser importance are presented charitably and non-dogmatically.
I suspect that many of the people reading this review will already be owners of at least one study Bible. I feel it is important to affirm that there is nothing innately wrong with the Reformation Study Bible, The New Geneva Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible and many of the other similar products. If you are currently using one of these Bibles and are happy with it, there may be fewer compelling reason to rush out and purchase the ESV Study Bible. I have used the Reformation Study Bible and its predecessor for many years with great benefit. I have no doubt that I will continue to refer to it.
With that said, I think the ESV Study Bible is an incredible resource. A long list of endorsers have expressed their excitement for its theological faithfulness, its accessibility, its insight, its scholarship, its practicality and its sheer excellence. I would simply append my name to this list. I agree wholeheartedly with C.J. Mahaney who writes, “I can’t imagine a greater gift to the body of Christ than the ESV Study Bible. It is a potent combination indeed: the reliability and readability of the ESV translation, supplemented by the best of modern and faithful scholarship, packaged in an accessible and attractive format. A Christian could make no wiser investment for himself, a pastor could recommend no better resource for his congregation.” This is a powerful resource and one that can aid any reader of Scripture. It is one I recommend wholeheartedly.
Early in this review I wrote, “Today, if you drop by my home in the early morning, you are likely to see me reading from the Literary Study Bible.” I think it’s safe to say that, if you drop by my home early tomorrow morning, you are likely to see me reading from the ESV Study Bible.
Buy It & Resources
Here are some excerpts from the ESV Study Bible:
The ESV Study Bible is now widely available. I recommend Amazon (The ESV Study Bible) or Westminster Books: