ESV Study Bible and the ESV translation

Thank you Michele Bennett of Crossway Publishing for sending me a review copy.

In this rather lengthy post, I will speak about what I have found to be the main features of the ESV Study Bible, and then in the second half of this post, I will give my opinion about the ESV translation itself. I know there have already been numerous other bibliobloggers in the blogosphere blogging about the ESV Study Bible (ESVSB). I will finally add mine opinion of the it here today.

1. The features of the ESV Study Bible:

The more I read the ESV Study Bible, the more I like it. If you’re looking for a good study bible, the ESV Study Bible is definitely one of the best available. The study notes and the overall feel of it will make it one of the all-time great study bibles. With over 20,000 study notes and 50 articles, it is a heavy-duty study bible, and it also looks and feels like one too. With 2,750 pages, it is one of the thickest study bibles out there, if not the thickest. The ESV Study Bible is the biggest of them all. It is also the most comprehensive I’ve seen. The quantity and quality of study notes is comparable to its two major rivals, the T/NIV and NLT study bibles. The introductions for each book are excellent. They are scholarly and are based on up-to-date scholarship. The contributing scholars for the ESV Study Bible are top-notch evangelical scholars. The wide variety of scholars from many denominations makes this study bible ecumenical. The scholars who have contributed the study notes, articles, and the ESV translation itself, are from a variety of denominational seminaries, theological schools, and universities. They come from a variety of denominational backgrounds: Baptist, Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, Pentecostal, and many and various evangelical seminaries (their names can be seen here).

In my opinion, the big name on the editorial oversight committee is J.I. Packer, the Theological Editor. The other names on this committee are C. John Collins, the Old Testament Editor, and Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Editor. The editorial committee is covenantal in theology. It is not surprise me that this committee leans more toward covenantal in theology. Well, the majority of the readership of the ESV translation is covenantal or reformed; so why not? Will dispensationalists find this study bible overly covenantal? I don’t think so. There are some dispensationalists on the list of study note contributors but they are the minority. In recent years, I have found that my own theology moving from an Arminian dispensational outlook to more of a covenantal one. So now, I can appreciate both theological views. I can say that it is not as covenantal or reformed as the ESV Reformation Study Bible. So if you’re a dispensationalist, you’ll still like this study bible and appreciate its value.

In the ESV panel discussion, Dr. J.I. Packer, the theological editor, spoke about the ESV Study Bible being a useful tool for catechesis (or oral instruction). I have wondered what makes it a good tool for catechesis. If someone could enlighten me on this one, I would appreciate it.

One thing that separates the ESV Study Bible from the rest of the other study bibles is the physical quality of the bible itself. It has a very good quality binding because it is Smyth-sewn rather than glued. This makes it much longer-lasting, and it allows the bible to lay flat when you’re at the beginning of Genesis or at the end of Revelation. Most study bibles out there only use the cheap glue binding, including the NTL Study Bible, NIV Study Bible, New Oxford Annotated Bible, and HarperCollins SB. The ESV Study Bible, however, is Smyth-sewn and reinforced with some glue to make it more durable. So kudos to Crossway for providing a good quality binding. I think Crossway has really improved on the quality of some of its bibles. One pet-peeve I have about bibles is that when you open up the bible, and the pages at the seam crinkle-up. The pages near the seam in this bible seem to crinkle, and I don’t know why. Open one up and you’ll see for yourself. Maybe someone can explain to me why this happens?

The layout is very attractive. It is easy on the eyes. Personally, I like the lines that separate the header, the study notes, and the side columns. I find this easier on the eyes and it gives the appearance of a clean-cut layout. Crossway has also provided quality high-opacity French bible paper and a very nice print job. I like the dark arial font for the study notes and the dark serif font for the biblical text. It provides a good contrast and it makes it easier to read. The font size is also a good size. I don’t have to use a magnifying glass to read it. I also like the single column format. I was accustomed to double columns but I have slowly become accustomed to reading wide single columns. Moreover, the abundance of white space around the text makes it easier and quicker to read, especially if you’re a speed reader (which I’m not).

This is one of the only bibles I’ve seen with so many full-color maps and illustrations within the pages of the bible texts. No other bible has come close to what the ESV Study Bible has done in providing relevant maps that are in such magnificent colors and detail. It has certainly set the bar in this area. Not only are these color maps placed in each of the book introductions, but they are also placed within the pages of the main texts to provide the readers with an historical place where the story was situated. The regions, nations and cities are concurrent to the period of time when the characters and stories took place. It’s really well done.

I have to say that I’m a cross reference user and prefer bibles that have cross references. I don’t know about most people, but when I do indepth study into the text, I actually use cross references to find relevant and comparable scripture verses. I have found that the cross references are in the ESVSB is sufficient and comparable to other bibles; plus there is a concordance in the back.

The numerous theological articles in the back of the bible reflect an evangelical perspective. They are quite readable, even for beginner Christians. It’s a nice addition. Perhaps these theological-biblical articles were what J.I. Packer was referring to when he spoke about the ESV Study Bible being a useful tool for catechesis? Also, in the past, I’ve wondered what it was like during the time period in between the OT and NT. Some historical and scholarly articles are appropriately placed in between the Old Testament and the New Testament to explain in a compact fashion: the time between the testaments; the Roman Empire and the Greco-Roman world; Jewish groups at the time of the NT.

2. The ESV translation:

As far as the translation itself goes, I see the ESV translation becoming ever more popular in the future. It is popular in covenantal Baptist and Reformed churches, but it is also becoming more widely used in Lutheran congregations. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) has switched their new hymnal from the NIV to the ESV translation. For some Lutherans, the previous switch from the RSV to the NIV, and now to the ESV, is sort of a return to the Tyndale RSV-style language. For those who are used to the old RSV, they will find the ESV an easy transition. I don’t think Crossway wants to market the ESV as an ‘updated RSV’ but it really is kind of like an ‘updated RSV’ since much of the text is identical to the old RSV. In fact, maybe Crossway could have renamed it the RSV2? The difference between the two is in its updated and conservative biblical scholarship, and easier to read punctuations and some modernized grammar. Overall, it still reads very much like the RSV. When I was reading from the ESV aloud, many thought I was reading from the RSV. In certain passages, the difference between the ESV and RSV is only slight. There is even less of a difference between the KJV and NKJV.

Even though some have debated the accuracy of between the ESV and the TNIV, there is really not much to debate about because the ESV is still a very accurate and scholarly translation. If we want to debate the accuracy of the ESV, we will also have to debate the accuracy of the RSV. Some may accuse the ESV being a step back from the RSV, but I don’t think so. I acknowledge that the RSV is one of the best translations ever translated into the English language and in many ways, the ESV has improved over its predecessor. Personally, I really like the NRSV, TNIV and NLT translations because they are gender-inclusive and highly accurate. The ESV is also gender-inclusive, but to only to an extent. That’s the criticism. The level of gender-inclusivity in the ESV is somewhere in-between the TNIV/NRSV (which fully use gender-inclusive language) and NIV/RSV (which mainly use masculine language). We can come to two possible conclusions concerning this issue of moderate use of gender-inclusive language:

1/ It is inconsistent; or
2/ It is ‘playing it safe’ and not ‘going over-board’.

Personally, I think both points of view are legitimate. Personally, I do prefer gender-inclusive language because it fits the context of the audience to whom the writers were originally writing to. However, technically speaking, the gender of the pronouns (i.e., he, him, his) are mostly masculine because that’s how gender was used in Greek writing.

The ESV translation is already a very successful translation but I believe it will become even more popular. In the near future, it will become head-to-head rivals with the NIV and NLT. I predict that the ESV will become one of the great modern translations of all time. I am not just saying that but I really believe it. Crossway has put together great study bible with a great translation to go along with it. Good job Crossway!

12 thoughts on “ESV Study Bible and the ESV translation

  1. Greetings All,

    I was catching up on my blog reading and bumped into this post.

    First, I need to offer a serious correction. I am not the General Editor of The Lutheran Study Bible, that noble task if the work of my colleague at Concordia Publishing House, Rev. Edward Engelbrecht.

    Second, I have good news. I can offer a sneak preview of The Lutheran Study Bible:

    God bless!

    Pastor Paul T. McCain
    Concordia Publishing House


  2. Rich, I think you’re right about John 20:23. It does make a difference in the theology depending on how it’s translated. The NASB’s translation is also similar to the RSV’s rendering of John 20:23.

    It’ll probably be the biggest piece of work contributed by LCMS scholars in a study bible. I can’t wait to see the new ESV Concordia Self-Study Bible. I haven’t read or heard anything about this yet but I’d like to find out more about it.


  3. Another ESV Study Bible. While the ESV SB is popular, it basically only presents various Reformed views.

    The LCMS is developing a Lutheran Study Bible to be published in Fall 2009. This will not be a revision of the current ESV Study Bible (as was done with NIV Study Bible — > Concordia Self-Study Bible). This study Bible will be from the ground up original work contributed by Lutheran scholars.


  4. Kevin wrote about naming the ESV something like RSV2. Interestingly in 2006 the RCC published a revised RSV with Apocrypha called, “RSV Bible, Ignatius Edition”. There were several changes, notably Is. 7:14 using “virgin” instead of “young woman.” And they translated John 20:23 correctly, not like the ESV which mangled it badly (as does NIV).

    Overall I found it very good and in many ways better than ESV. Too bad the ESV team couldn’t have built on this base – since they were working on it at the same time. I wish the LCMS had used it instead of the ESV.


  5. L. Wells, thanks for sharing about yourself. I wish you the best in your studies to become a worship leader in the ECUSA. Who knows where God will lead you in the future? I think it’ alright to have modified forms of theology. I think most theologians would say they’re also have modified forms of theology. Well, Wesley modified his theology too, probably from Anglican upbringing and Moravian influence? I don’t know if there’s really any pure Calvinist, Lutherans, Methodists, etc. Everyone has some theologies all mishmashed together even though they may call themselves Reformed, Lutheran, etc.


  6. Kevin my church history is a rather convoluted one I’d be happy to email or chat with you about sometime, but for the sake of keeping on point to the blog topic, I will keep it simple here.

    I am much like you in that I wouldn’t call myself Reformed, but probably would say that I am covenantal because it just seems to make more sense to me too. Calvinism is something I was never interested in until reading Barth. In fact it was something that I considered repugnant, till I realized that I had not actually read Calvin, but merely had read the interpretations of other writers concerning Calvin. So I bought a copy of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and have been reading it from time to time.

    Personally I have always been influenced mostly by John Wesley, and indeed was United Methodist for several years. I considered many times attending United Methodist seminary but put it off until finally deciding the Episcopal Church was my home. I am studying to be a worship leader in ECUSA(sort of like an assisstant to the priest). I will actually soon be made a local worship leader, and will continue studying and training on the job until eventually going before the standing committee to become one for the church on a diocesan and national level. My studies have brought me across writings that have interested me in Calvin and covenant theology. Though I do not consider myself Calvinist, I do see many brilliant things in his writings. I suppose I am not one to buy into a whole system such as Calvinism or Arminianism, but rather tweak them to my own thinking in some areas. I suppose one could call me a modified Calvinist or a modified Arminian and be accurate either way. I suppose all of this is why I am Anglican, I choose the via media, that middle ground between Roman Catholic and Reformed. I’m not sure my thoughts have really changed so much as they have been confirmed concerning covenant theology, but it is something I am still looking into more thoroughly. It seems to me this view was prevalent amongst older theologians, for example my own views were developed by men such as Wesley, in that he viewed baptism as the replacement for circumsicion etc.


  7. L. Wells, at $24.95, you definitely can’t go wrong. The colourful maps and quality binding were the first few things that got my attention. Not that other study bibles aren’t quality but these physical qualities made it stand out for me. You kind of have to look deeper to see the quality of study notes. I wish J.I. Packer could have contributed more of his own articles too. I think he only wrote one, even though he was the theological editor.

    I don’t mind publicly sharing about my shift in thinking. I have been dispensational from my evangelical upbringing but since seminary, I’ve learned more about covenantal theology and it seems to make more sense in my mind. I used to read Hal Lindsay endtime-type comic books as a kid but now it seems hilarious to me, more fictional than anything. In studying Lutheran theology and reading some of Calvin, I think covenantal theology makes more sense but I’m still sympathetic to some Arminian views. I would not say I’m Reformed, but covenantal, yes.

    How did your shift take place? (you can email me too it you wish?)


  8. “In recent years, I have found that my own theology moving from an Arminian dispensational outlook to more of a covenantal one.”

    I too have typically been Arminian minded, but have found myself increasingly reading Calvin ever since I read some things by Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have found myself becoming very intrigued by Covenant theology. I think my ideas have for a long time leaned towards covenantal over dispensational, but I have only recently begun to explore covenantal theology as a “system” per se. I would be interested in hearing some of the reasons for your shift in thinking Kevin. If you are not comfortable posting them, then perhaps you could email them?


  9. Kevin, I said awhile back I wasn’t going to do it, but a local bookstore ran a promotion price of $24.95 on the hardback and I caved. Thus far this study Bible looks like the more theological/less critical study Bible I’ve been looking for for some time now. I love how it sets forth interpretations other than those of the editors and doesn’t try to pretend theirs is the only one. I do wish they had done an article highlighting Anglican views, much like they did with the Roman and Orthodox Churches, but J.I. Packer being an Evangelical Anglican probably wanted that to be the image of the Anglican Church set forth in the articles.

    The charts, maps and other helps alone make this one worth every cent you pay. Even for those who don’t like the ESV, I’d still recommend this Bible for the tonage of study material.The construction is surprisingly good as you stated, at least in my hardcover(and I do prefer hardcovers in Bibles this large). The ESV Study Bible serves as an excellent balance to my critical Bibles.


  10. I was able to look at a hardcover edition at a local Christian bookstore and the thing that stood out to me was the quality maps and illustrations. I am a bit of a sucker for those things, so I was highly impressed with the ESVSB! Well done!


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