Well, it took longer than I anticipated. But I finished it. Every last page of the “readable” content in the ESV Study Bible (except the translation footnotes, the marginal cross-references, or the concordance). It only took me three-and-a-half-years! Not that I’m a slow reader, although you probably gather I’m methodical. There is just that much material to digest.
The ESVSB is a publishing landmark. It has single-handedly changed the breadth and depth that readers demand of their Study Bible. Weighing in at nearly 2800 pages, I estimate it includes 10-30% more content than its predecessors. Since its release in 2009, other Study Bibles that entered the market had to include 300-600 more pages to compete. One has even surpassed it in length (NIVZSB)! Because of its size, the ESVSB is more of a reference library than a personal Bible for toting around. But everyone should own it. Here’s why.
Edited by Wayne Grudem and published by Crossway, the English Standard Version strives to be an “essentially literal” translation in the historic family line of the King James Version. The ESV is a faithful revision of the RSV published in the mid-twentieth century. It strives for a balance of readability that is more literal than the NIV and less so than the NASB. Because the ESV is not a totally new translation (like the NIV was in the 1970s), it reads with similar wording and cadence compared to other translations in the great English Bible tradition that is dear to so many. Hence the ESV has become a trusted and beloved translation that is rapidly growing in popularity and readership.
Written from a “systematic theology” perspective by a team of respected evangelical and reformed scholars and pastors representing historic evangelical orthodoxy, the articles form an amazing library for the student of the Bible. Furthermore, every skeptic and cynic who thinks he knows more about the Bible than most Christians would do well to familiarize himself with the best summaries of conservative Christian scholarship. Most every one of these summaries can be found in the articles. They cover a range of topics:
- Bible overview
- Individual book introductions
- Book genre and sectional overviews
- Theologies of the OT and NT
- God’s plan of salvation
- Strategies for reading the Bible
- Canonical issues
- The biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek
- Reliability of biblical manuscripts
- Archaeology and biblical reliability
- The Septuagint and its influence on the NT
- How the Bible is used/read in various Christian traditions
- How other religions use/read the Bible
- Christocentric pointers throughout the OT
A subset of these articles was also published separately in the book Understanding Scripture. The great benefit of these is a crash-course of sorts for those who don’t have the benefit of a Bible-believing seminary education. Also for those who don’t have a ton of money to spend on a good biblical- and theological-studies library. Every articles is well-written, engaging, and informative. Some will prove to be challenging to long-held beliefs that have weak (or no) biblical support. I especially profited from the articles explaining different strategies for reading the Bible, which include theologically, as literature, in prayer and communion with God, for personal application, and for preaching and public worship. These reading perspectives are each important, and good reminders that most of us tend to only read the Bible one way—whether it’s our preferred strategy or the only one we were taught.
I’m a Study Bible junkie. My habit is to read the Bible first during my devotional reading. If I have time I will read some or even all of the study notes printed at the bottom of the page. In the ESVSB, these notes focus on the meaning of the biblical words in light of the whole Bible’s teaching on a particular subject (hence the Systematic Theology or “doctrinal” emphasis of this Study Bible). While some books have better notes than others (which is to be expected given the wide range of authors who wrote them), they are on whole better than Study Bibles in which the notes are written by one person or by authors from only one denomination. Study note contributors include those from the following traditions: Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Anglican, non-denom, Lutheran, Evangelical Free, Assemblies of God, and maybe others that are difficult for me to identify.
Unfortunately, my opinion of the study notes was wholly positive until I came to the very last book. Revelation’s study notes disappointed me because they were not as clearly written as I had hoped. I am familiar with the interpretative perspective of the author, Dennis Johnson, and his published commentary on Revelation (which is Reformed and quite good—following Hendriksen’s 7 cycles/snapshots reading). But the study notes in Revelation also include the dispensational interpretation as an alternative reading. Including alternative perspectives doesn’t bother me, but it is done so thoroughly and consistently in the study notes that (for me) it detracts from the readability and even the intelligibility of the notes. They just don’t have the feeling of a unified viewpoint. Oh well. 65 out of 66 books ain’t bad!
The ESVSB includes in-text and in-color maps, charts, and illustrations. And it’s not just a few here and there: 200 maps, 40+ illustrations, and 200+ charts. These supplement the standard Study Bible features like cross-references (80,000+) and an extensive concordance. Most of the in-text maps, charts, and illustrations are newly created and appear for the first time in the ESVSB.
Tucked in the back is a feature that is, in my opinion, perhaps the most valuable part of the ESVSB. Vern Poythress compiled an invaluable resource for seeing Christ in the OT. It’s called “History of Salvation in the Old Testament: Preparing the Way for Christ.” Arranged in three columns of small print across 26 pages, hundreds of verse references include a brief statement linking the passage to its Christological fulfillment in the NT. For preachers and Bible students, every entry is a “scarlet thread” to tug on until Christ is revealed. Thus the reader is redirected back to the OT and its study notes for fuller commentary and reflection. Simply put, I am aware of no other biblical theological summary as useful and accessible as this.
And for all the geeks out there. The ESVSB is available in online and web app forms. It’s free to all those who purchase the print edition. These e-formats also include additional features not included in the paper copy, including audio Bible, personalized online note storage, and of course hyperlinks for an interactive experience.
When the ESVSB first arrived in my mailbox back in December of 2012, I thought about writing a book review immediately. After all, that was when all the buzz was surrounding the new superstar Study Bible on the market. But my review would have probably been drowned out with all the others that were praising it right after publication. I decided to take the slow route of actually reading the whole thing and provide the best-informed review that I can offer. So for what it’s worth, take it from someone who has actually read the whole kit and caboodle. You need to get the ESVSB. Put it on your desk for easy reference. Or better yet, do what I did and read the whole thing. I don’t think you’ll regret the cost or time invested. Pray for God to bless your study, and he will be faithful to make your faith grow knowledgeable, humble, wise, obedient, and mature.