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A Review of the ESV Study Bible

Jan 14, 2011

Crossway, 2008.

In 2001 the English Standard Version of the Bible was released. Its parentage goes back to William Tyndale’s 1525 New Testament and the 1611 King James Version. The text of the 1971 Revised Standard Version provides the immediate foundation for this work.

Theologian James Packer headed up the translation project, with a team of over a hundred people, including 50 biblical scholars. The work on this project was originally approved of in 1998. A minor revision of the 2001 edition occurred in 2007.

Image of ESV Study Bible
ESV Study Bible by ESV Bibles by Crossway Amazon logo

As to the translation philosophy, there are two main methods, with various translations lining up along a spectrum. On the one side are formal equivalence, or word-for-word, translations. On the other are functional or dynamic equivalence, or thought-for-thought, translations. Further beyond the thought-for-thought translations are paraphrases, such as the Living Bible.

The ESV falls into the formal equivalence camp. As stated in the Preface, the “ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on ‘word-for-word’ correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages.”

In future articles I will look more closely at these various translation philosophies or methods. Suffice it to say that there are strengths and weaknesses to both of the major approaches. I tend to prefer formal equivalence translations, which is one of the reasons why I appreciate the ESV.

Study Bible

The ESV Study Bible appeared in 2008. Leading scholars involved in the overall project include Packer and Wayne Grudem. Old Testament experts include Gordon Wenham, Paul House, John Oswalt, T. Desmond Alexander, Iain Proven and Duane Garrett.

New Testament scholars include Thomas Schreiner, Frank Thielman, Andreas Kostenberger, Scott Hafemann, Grant Osborne and Robert Yarbrough. Those even remotely familiar with theology and biblical studies will of course recognise most of these names. Some 95 scholars in total went into the work of this Study Bible.

As to the contents of the Study Bible, there are more than 50 major articles dealing with key theological and biblical topics. There are 20,000 notes which run throughout the Bible, along with 80,000 cross-references. Some 200 maps are included as well.

There are also over 200 charts and timelines. In addition there are 40 illustrations. All up this volume comprises some 2 million words stretched over 2,752 pages. Thus this is an important and detailed theological reference work. And given that those who purchase this work also get free access to the online Study Bible, this really is a complete package.

But why study Bibles? Why are they important? Those who have a solid theological reference library at home – or access to local public theological libraries – may well have less need for such a study tool. Those with a good supply of commentaries, Bible dictionaries, Bible atlases, and various reference works, will be well-supplied in this regard.

But most Christians do not have a large and substantial reference library. Thus a tool like this becomes quite important. In one volume all these various tools are handily combined. One really can stay with this single volume and learn so much about background issues, historical and cultural matters, theological concerns, and so on.

I am not arguing that Christians should rely on just one work, and I am a firm believer in the need for all followers of Christ to build up at least a small personal library of some of the more important biblical reference works. But in a massive work like this, those with limited funds or limited shelf space will really have a very good start to biblical knowledge and understanding with this new Bible.

Consider just one example of how this volume actually works. The introduction to the book of 2 Corinthians runs to four pages. All the key issues are nicely addressed. The author, date, and place of writing are discussed, as are the background, occasion and purpose of the epistle.

A timeline of Paul and his ministry is also provided. A colour map showing the setting of the letter is included, as is a listing of key themes and emphases. Finally a detailed outline of the epistle is provided. While a helpful critical commentary may spend 50 pages or more on such background issues, these four pages give the reader a very good introduction and feel for the letter.

There have of course been many good study Bibles produced over the years, such as the Harper Study Bible or the NIV Study Bible. Some study Bibles come from a rather narrow or limited theological perspective, such as the Reformation Study Bible. This one offers more room to move, while remaining firmly in the conservative, evangelical camp.

The ESV Study Bible is certainly among the newest, most comprehensive, and most helpful. Those looking for a recent word-for-word translation, coupled with a great set of theological reference helps and tools will find this volume to be an excellent choice. I am happy to recommend it.

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25 Responses to A Review of the ESV Study Bible

  • This is my all-time favorite Bible, lovingly called the “English Sanctified Version” at my house. The fact that you endorse it speaks volumes. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it.
    Amy Bailey

  • Bill, I bought the ESV Study Bible a few years ago (when it was first released) and I have to say it is an outstanding bit of work. It compares very favourably to the NIV version. In my opinion, the study notes for the NIV are fairly ordinary – at times pathetic! The ESV stands in stark contrast to this, and contains many valuable resources which you have outlined. I would heartily recommend it to every Christian who wishes to be a student of the scriptures.
    Simon Kennedy

  • As with Simon, I bought the ESV study Bible two years ago and have not regretted it at all. Mind you, reading the NIV that I have for ‘flow’ and readability is still much on the agenda 🙂
    Rob Robertson

  • I read (somewhere) that the old NIV will not be printed after the introduction of the NIV2010. I also read that the 2010 edition leans toward the so called egalitarian position when interpreting and translating texts, enough to change the meaning of key texts.

    I also heard that the ESV was a bit clunky in spots.

    Given that the NIV changes forces churches into a into a whole new choice of congregational version, does anybody have any comments on the usefulness of the ESV as a congregational Bible.

    Michael Hutton

  • If you like the NIV, you might try the HCSB. It reads in normal English but is more literal than the NIV. I love the ESV SB for it’s notes and articles, but the translation is a little ‘clunky’ to me too. I find the HCSB just as accurate but a lot more readable.
    John Stein

  • I have found the ESV to be literal enough and still readable enough to use and welcome the Study Bible. NIV is good but sometimes takes liberties with translation. I actually quite like NRSV too in spite of its “clunky” gender-neutral renderings; ESV tries to be gender-neutral compared to older versions but not at the expense of literal meaning.
    Jon Newton

  • Hi Bill,

    I recently came across a “one-line” Bible summary:

    Be kind to each other, don’t plunder or do violence, wash regularly, spread the wealth and don’t eat offal.

    It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but there’s some truth to it. Just wondering what you think of it.

    Marge Grantley, NSW

  • Thanks Marge

    Actually the idea of inviting Christians to come up with a one line summary of the Bible may not be a bad idea. But something a bit better than the one offered here would be needed! Some will simply use John 3:16, which would not be a bad summary. Any other takers?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Try these on for size. Dane Ortlund has asked a number of prominent evangelicals to do just that.

    http://dogmadoxa.blogspot.com/2011/01/whats-message-of-bible-in-one-sentence.html

    Simon Kennedy

  • Christ himself has summarised it for us in one sentence:

    Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
    Matt 22:36-40

    In other words, Faith and Good Works.

    I often wonder why the Bible is so big when much of it is superfluous, irrelevant, confusing or redundant. And yet we wonder why so many Christians don’t read it. The message is pretty simple, as Christ himself demonstrated above.

    Mark Johnson, Vic

  • Thanks Mark

    But given such a very high view of Scripture that Jesus had, Paul had, etc., I certainly would not view the Word of God as you do, especially your belief that it so much of it is “superfluous, irrelevant”. Or was Paul simply mistaken when he said that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work: (2 Tim 3:16-17).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Prof. Muehlenberg, Are you familiar with the Net Bible site online and if so, how do you feel about it as a reference tool?
    Is there a particular theological bent or slant to this site?
    Sibyl Smith

  • Thanks Sibyl

    I am not all that familiar with it, but a lengthy description of the translation and so on is found here on its site: http://bible.org/article/preface-net-bible-first-edition
    It seems like a good group of scholars have put it together, and it seems to be a pretty helpful Bible and Bible study tool.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • C’mon Bill, if the KJV was good enough for the apostle Paul, it should be good enough for us. 😉
    Graeme Cumming

  • Last time I went to buy a ‘paper’ bible, I spent ages comparing translations.

    At the time it came down to a choice between the ESV and the HCSB.

    The ESV is certainly very scholarly, but the HCSB, whilst not far behind scholarly, in it’s standard paper version, is incredibly pleasant to read. By that I mean that they have gone to great lengths to ensure that the layout, colours etc, are pleasing to the eye.

    I now use an electronic NKJV, not because of it’s flow, but because of the foot notes which tell me the manuscript variations. I have become quite suspicious of the Alexandrian (AKA Westcott and Hort, United Bible Societies, Nestle Aland) text behind all the other major modern translations.

    The KJV was an excellent translation for it’s time and has stood the test of time. Although it is dated, there were advantages to it which we have definitely lost :-
    – When ‘everyone’ used the KJV learning memory verses was repeatedly reinforced, because every time you learnt the same verse again it was the same text. Now days that does not happen, because when you learn the same verse again, it may be a different translation.
    – The English was much more poetic and therefore easier to memorise.

    For the above reasons, I believe we should always use the KJV for memory verses.

    Tim Pearce

  • I had not read the list of scholars until today…and here is an endorsement that cinches the value and reliability of the Net Bible online in my estimation:

    “The extensive and reliable notes in the NET Bible were a wonderful help to our translation team as we worked to prepare the English Standard Version.”
    Wayne Grudem
    Member, Translation Oversight Committee, ESV
    Research Professor of Bible and Theology
    Phoenix Seminary
    Scottsdale, AZ

    Sibyl Smith

  • Hi Bill,
    What about the NKJV as an alternative to the KJV? I use the Spirit Filled Commentary Series which has Dr Jack Hayford (and I think Dr Chappell) as its Editor both of whom I know personally. It contains excellent Word Studies and other anecdotes that are very helpful in study and sermon preparation.
    It is technically a formal equivalent version but mediates somewhat.
    I personally enjoy the NLT and The Message(by Eugene Peterson) as a reference tool and to provide a contemporary language perspective. What do you think of those versions?
    Mihael McCoy

  • Hi Bill,

    What do you think of KJV only extremists who believe that it is the definitive and uniquely inspired translation of the Bible, and the only one that anyone in the world should read, and that every other English version, and all versions in other languages are also corrupt? Trust me; they’re out there.

    Ross McPhee

  • Thanks Ross

    Yes I know they exist and I think they have got it wrong. But I am hoping to write an article on this sometime soon, so stay tuned.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I read a comment recently to the effect that the bible could be summed up, as Mark J says, as:

    “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”,

    and that everything else is commentary and supporting documentation.

    I also find the Max Ehrmann poem Desiderata to be very beautiful. Its advice is not incompatible with the teachings of Christ, in my opinion.

    David Williams

  • Thanks David

    I disagree with you on the poem. But if you don’t mind, I have written my reasons for this in an article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/01/22/on-desiderata/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hello Bill,

    I was wondering whether you have taken the time to read “NEW AGE BIBLE VERSIONS” by G.A. Riplinger. I am curious of your opinion on her ideas relating to some of the newer Bible versions.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • Thanks Mario

    I need to write an article on this some time, but I am not impressed by the King James Only crowd, and some of the conspiracy theories they can generate.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I’m looking for some insight on this….so looking forward to reading the article.

    And yes, regarding the Word of God, I love this one – perfect, far above all others: John 1:1

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  • I just checked out this study Bible online at….

    http://www.esvstudybible.org/

    After watching the video clips, I was expecting this Bible to be expensive, but was pleasantly surprised…I have just purchased it on the Amazon link you gave above, at the price of $32AUD (plus $10 for shipping to Australia).

    Thanks for the info!

    Annette Nestor, Perth

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