I’ve had my NIV Study Bible since the early 1990’s. My parents got it for me and it has become one of my favourite Bibles. In seminary I used it profusely since I was convinced the “dynamic equivalence” model of translation theory was the best one. I did not like the NASB (a popular edition when I was in seminary) as it seemed rather wooden in places. There were places I was not thrilled with the NIV but I was happy with it for the most part. And I really enjoyed the study notes.
Then, something rather amazing happened! Well, actually something rather common happened. Another study bible was released. This was the ESV study bible. I had only briefly looked at the ESV and thought it to be similar enough to the NASB that I really did not give it a second look. But so many people were coming to embrace it that I thought it should be something I should look at. And now since seminary I review many books, I can get most books I ask for to review, so I asked Crossway for a copy of the ESV study bible. All I can say is that this is my new favourite Bible!
The ESV itself takes a more literal approach to translation theory than I have preferred but makes valuable improvements in both the weaknesses of the NASB and the NIV. Where the NASB was overly wooden, the ESV is much smoothers. Where the NIV took too much liberty in interpretation, the ESV is more literal. I feel the ESV strikes a nice balance between both the NASB and the NIV. It is solidly conservative and easy to read. If I had to pick a new favourite translation, I think I am leaning more and more from the NIV to the ESV. But, what about the study notes? I had become accustomed to the ones in the NIV so the ESV had some hard work to convert me. At least I thought it did. Instead, it took less than a minute.
My only complaint at the outset is the paper that most bibles use in hardcover editions (the one I was sent). It is very thin and hard to turn the pages and can tear easily. In leather editions this is not as much of an issue, but this is my main issue with the hardcover edition.
The first thing that struck me about the study bible is the incredible amount of resources it contains. It contains 66 articles and essays ranging from topics on the Trinity, Bioethics, Reading the Bible as Literature, the Septuagint, and a History of Salvation in the Old Testament. These resources written by major Evangelical scholars are weighty but succinct providing just the right amount of helpful information that satisfy’s the questions but prompts the reader for further study.
The next thing that strikes you is the full colour maps and illustrations. No study Bible I have ever had had full colour anything unless you count the maps that are put at the back of the bible. But every illustration and map throughout the bible is in full colour. This makes things really stand out and provides nice clear pictures to help aid in the study process.
When it comes to the notes themselves they are very thorough and balanced. They list major options of interpretation and usually let the reader decide. One of the most helpful items in the notes are what I will call the contextual notes. These, with a slight highlight, outline the sections in the text and give helpful brief notes focusing on the context of individual sections. So, not only are individual verses parsed specifically and given helpful specific information but even whole sections are given notes to help facilitate reading the text as a piece of literature. This helps the readers see the big picture of how each individual section fits into the work as a whole.
Before each book there is a helpful treatment of authorship, dating, and other common features. What sets the ESV apart from others are the literary features section which help to explain what is going on overall in the book and the history of salvation summary which put the content of the book in the context of the redemption story of the whole Scripture. This is a very helpful addition as it helps to put into context the book as a whole and helps to prevent moralizing the text but instead interpreting it in light of the rest of Scripture.
Obviously each note cannot be critiqued here in a brief review like this, but one will be looked at which always seems to generate much discussion, and that is the nature of the millennium in Revelation 20. Under Revelation 20:1–6 it describes this as “Interlude: The Thousand Years of the Dragon’s Binding and the Martyrs’ Reign.” Each of the premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial, positions are described and represented fairly. It highlights different approaches to the next (literal versus symbolic) and the representative features of each position. The notes do not take a position on the issue but helpfully simply say, “Likewise, each of these views falls within the framework of historic Christian orthodoxy” (p. 2492). This is the sort of congenial attitude we need to have when discussing issues of debate that are not part of the fundamentals of the faith. While obviously this reviewer would take a particular position, he appreciates how fairly his position is described and would not hesitate to recommend this particular note to those of any eschatological persuasion.
Overall, I find the ESV study bible to be probably the best study bible on the market. Obviously, please continue to use your other study bible’s but if I was to recommend just one, I would highly recommend the ESV Study Bible. Now I just have to wait to get my hands on the Black Genuine Leather edition!