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ESV Study Bible
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on November 16, 2015
The ESV Study Bible (ESVSB) now has a sturdy new "competitor" in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (NIVZSB). How do they stack up against each other?

In this review I will note similarities between the two, describe some differences, and survey their approach to 10 controversial topics/texts. (For a much fuller version of this review, covering more topics/texts, visit my website by searching for "Dwight Gingrich" and "NIV Zondervan Study Bible.")

SIMILARITIES:

Both are massive works, first (NIVZSB) and second (ESVSB) in length among major evangelical study Bibles.Both stand firmly within the conservative evangelical tradition. Both are scholarly works with general editors bearing PhDs from the University of Cambridge—Wayne Grudem for the ESVSB and D. A. Carson for the NIVZSB. My incomplete manual comparison of the contributors to the two study Bibles revealed at least 9 people who contributed to both.

Both affirm traditional authorship for contested books such as the Pentateuch (Moses with minor editorial shaping), Isaiah (Isaiah), Matthew (the apostle Matthew), the Pastoral Epistles (Paul), and 2 Peter (the apostle Peter).

There are even typographical similarities: both volumes print the sacred text in a single column on each page, with cross references along the outside margins, and with commentary in double columns beneath.

Indeed, these two study Bibles are similar enough that the main factor that should influence your choice between the two is your preference in translations.

DIFFERENCES:

It appears to me that the ESVSB is somewhat stronger than the NIVZSB in these areas: Charts, maps, illustrations, historical information, and general apologetic or bibliological articles. The ESVSB, for example, has separate articles devoted to archeological topics, biblical languages, biblical doctrine, biblical ethics, and the perspectives that various denominations, religions, and cults bring to Scripture.

A comparison of the introductions to Exodus shows that the one in the ESVSB is slightly longer (six pages to the NIVZSB’s five), with more attention given to the historical reliability of the book and to its literary features. Similarly, the NIVZSB introduction for Galatians is three pages long, while the ESVSB’s covers four pages, providing a little more historical data, a superior map, and more space devoted to charts rather than photographs.

The differences, I stress, are differences of degree. The similarities here outweigh the differences, but I give the ESVSB the blue ribbon for visual helps and breadth of topics addressed in articles.

The NIVZSB is stronger in at least one way: its emphasis on biblical theology. This makes sense, given the editors of the two volumes: Wayne Grudem’s most significant authorial effort is his massive and massively popular Systematic Theology, while D. A. Carson is better known for both his commentaries and his editorial work in books such as the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament and the series New Studies in Biblical Theology.

The NIVZSB’s focus on biblical theology is most evident in the twenty-eight articles found before the concordance. Most articles are two or three pages long; together they cover sixty-six pages. Since these articles are the most unique part of this new study Bible, I will list them here, with their authors:

The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central – Timothy Keller
The Bible and Theology – D. A. Carson
A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible – D. A. Carson
The Glory of God – James M. Hamilton Jr.
Creation – Henri A. G. Blocher
Sin – Kevin DeYoung
Covenant – Paul R. Williamson
Law – T. D. Alexander
Temple – T. D. Alexander
Priest – Dana M. Harris
Sacrifice – Jay A. Sklar
Exile and Exodus – Thomas Richard Wood
The Kingdom of God – T. D. Alexander
Sonship – D. A. Carson
The City of God – T. D. Alexander
Prophets and Prophecy – Sam Storms
Death and Resurrection – Philip S. Johnston
People of God – Moisés Silva
Wisdom – Daniel J. Estes
Holiness – Andrew David Naselli
Justice – Brian S. Rosner
Wrath – Christopher W. Morgan
Love and Grace – Graham A. Cole
The Gospel – Greg D. Gilbert
Worship – David G. Peterson
Mission – Andreas J. Köstenberger
Shalom – Timothy Keller
The Consummation – Douglas J. Moo

While I disagree with minor points in some of these articles, I find myself agreeing with a much higher percentage of what is said here than with what is said in most systematic theologies. That is the benefit of staying closer to the language of Scripture itself. Most of these articles are very useful and some (such as Keller’s opening one) are even moving. I have a niggling question about the place of such essays in a study Bible (how many readers will really find and benefit from this content in their specific moments of exegetical need?), but reading them can certainly make one a better reader of Scripture.

CONTROVERSIAL TOPICS/TEXTS:

On the central matters of the gospel, both study Bibles are solid. They promote the core gospel message well, along with the necessary human response to God’s grace. And, though both are generally Calvinistic throughout, they do not emphasize this interpretive lens in a way that overshadows the biblical message itself. Well done.

But how does they handle more controversial passages—texts which theologically conservative Christians sometimes disagree about? And how does the NIVZSB compare to the ESVSB in its handling of these texts?

Creation: These study Bibles hold similar positions here: (1) On "days": The ESVSB presents five readings that “faithful interpreters” offer regarding the days of creation but refrains from assessing them. The NIVZSB says the mention of “days” “emphasizes the logical development of God’s creation more than it pinpoints the chronological development” (p. 20). (2) On "kinds": Both suggest this is a general term that (so they imply) leaves the door open for theistic evolution. (3) Both affirm that Adam and Eve were historical persons.

Divorce and Remarriage: Both study Bibles underscore at Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:1-12 that “Jesus is reaffirming God’s original intention that marriage be permanent and lifelong” (NIVZSB, p. 1970). They teach that both divorce and remarriage are “possible but never ideal” (NIVZSB, p. 1969) in cases where one marriage partner engages in “sexual immorality” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). It seems that the NIVZSB may interpret “sexual immorality” slightly more broadly, saying that the Greek term “porneia [is] the broadest term for sexual sin. It refers to sexual relations with any other person besides one’s monogamous heterosexual spouse” (p. 1939). The ESVSB, rather than speaking of “sexual relations,” specifies “sexual intercourse,” possibly a narrower term. On the other hand, the NIVZSB takes a more rigid stance than the ESVSB on 1 Corinthians 7:10-16: “There are only two options for a divorced woman: (1) remain unmarried or (2) reconcile with her husband.” It acknowledges regarding verse 15 ("the brother or sister is not bound in such circumstances”) that “it is often suggested that this allows a deserted Christian spouse to remarry” but states that “this interpretation is not plausible.”

Homosexuality: Both study Bibles state clearly that homosexual relations are sinful. An NIVZSB comment on Romans 1:26-27 succinctly states that “in making humans [sic!] beings male and female…, God manifests his intention for human sexual relations” (p. 2293).

Gender Roles: It will surprise some readers to learn that the NIVZSB takes nearly the same stance on gender roles as the ESVSB does. In all the gender texts I survey, the NIVZSB and ESVSB adopt nearly the same position—gender role difference in marriage and church are timeless principles, men are called to authoritative and loving leadership in home and church while women are called to submit, and women may not be overseers but may perhaps be (non-teaching) deacons. The NIVZSB does apparently leave the door open for women to teach men in non-authoritative positions in the church, but otherwise the differences between the study Bibles are differences of tone more than position, with the ESVSB giving a more rigorous defense of the position shared by both.

Nonresistance and Relationship to Government: On Matthew 5:38-48 the NIVZSB says that “Jesus is prohibiting retaliation for wrongs experienced.” It explains that a slap on the cheek is “a common Jewish insult by a superior to a subordinate, not an aggressor’s blow.” (p. 1939). This brief interpretation leaves the door open for Christians to use deadly force in other circumstances, though the NIVZSB does not explicitly state this. The ESVSB presents this position much more clearly: “Jesus is not prohibiting the use of force by governments, police, or soldiers when combating evil… One should not return an insulting slap, which would lead to escalating violence. In the case of a more serious assault, Jesus’ words should not be taken to prohibit self-defense…, for often a failure to resist a violent attack leads to even more serious abuse.” This difference is also evident in places like Romans 12-13, where the NIVZSB gently questions whether governments have the right to administer capital punishment, while the ESVSB suggests one way believers can "overcome evil with good" is through military or police force.

Spiritual Gifts: I haven’t found any clear statement where the NIVZSB strongly affirms whether or not the “miraculous” spiritual gifts continue to this day. This is remarkable, given that Sam Storms, a strong continuationist, was chosen to author an essay on “Prophets and Prophecy.” In this article he only vaguely hints at his own position by some present-tense references to prophecy. The ESVSB adopts a similar stance: “Bible-believing Christians disagree as to whether the gift of tongues ceased after the apostolic age of the early church, or whether tongues is a spiritual gift that should continue to be practiced today.” Clearly, both Bibles are aiming to avoid a fight over this volatile topic.

Foreknowledge, Predestination, Election: At Romans 8:29-30 the NIVZSB gives two possible explanations for God’s foreknowledge: “Perhaps ‘knew ahead of time’…: God ‘foreknew’ who would believe in him and so predestined them. But ‘know’ probably has the biblical sense of ‘enter into relationship with’…: God chose to initiate a relationship with people ‘before the creation of the world’… and on that basis ‘predestined’ them” (p. 2307). The ESVSB only presents the second option, and emphasizes that “predestined” means “predetermined” and that God’s calling is “effective,” not merely an invitation. At Romans 9 comments are similar. At Ephesians 1 both are strongly Calvinistic. At 1 Timothy 2:4, the ESVSB has a lengthy note that describes both Arminian and Calvinist interpretations without taking sides (surprise!), ending thus: “However one understands the extent of the atonement, this passage clearly teaches the free and universal offer of salvation to every single human being; ‘desires’ shows that this offer is a bona fide expression of God’s good will.” On this Timothy verse the NIVZSB suggests that “what God ‘wants’ may be hindered by lack of human faith.” This last statement opens the door to non-Calvinistic interpretations (but does not demand them). The NIVZSB and the ESVSB are both similarly Calvinistic regarding God’s choice and offer of salvation, but with occasional surprising flexibility.

Eternal Security: At Hebrews 6:4-6 the NIVZSB notes the “great difficulties for interpretation,” describes several common interpretations, and finally concludes that “those who do not hold on to faith in Christ show that their experience was superficial rather than genuine” (p. 2503). The ESVSB directs us to a note at Hebrews 3:14, which says “Scripture is clear… that true believers cannot lose their salvation.” At Hebrews 7:25 the NIVZSB argues that the fact that Jesus “always lives to intercede for” believers “precludes their turning back” (p. 2507). But such statements are relatively rare in the NIVZSB. At 1 John 2:19 the NIVZSB makes no clear theological deductions, while the ESVSB states that “this implies that those who are truly saved will never abandon Christ.” The ESVSB makes similar statements at John 6:40, John 10:28, 2 Peter 1:10, and Jude 1:2—all places where the NIVZSB makes no clear assertions about whether believers can ever lose their salvation.

Sabbath and Lord’s Day: These study Bibles take a similar stance on this topic. At Exodus 20:8-11 the ESVSB makes no Christian application, while the NIVZSB mentions that the Sabbath “anticipates the experience of rest through faith in Christ” (p. 155). At Colossians 2:16-17 the ESVSB says “it is debated whether the Sabbaths in question included the regular seventh-day rest of the fourth commandment, or were only the special Sabbaths of the Jewish festal calendar.” At Galatians 4:10 the ESVSB notes that some “believe that the weekly Sabbath command is not temporary but goes back to God’s pattern in creation.” The NIVZSB whispers (with dramatically different tone than Paul!) that “treating certain times as more sacred than others… is not an essential feature of Christian faith” (p. 2390). Thus, unlike the ESVSB, the NIVZSB apparently never suggests the Sabbath command may still apply. However, it seems a little more open to seeing Sunday worship as being normative (see description of the practice of the early church at 1 Cor. 16:2 and Rev. 1:10).

Israel and the Church: Both are inconsistent on this topic. The NIVZSB's “Exile and Exodus” article presents one perspective strongly: “As the only perfectly obedient Israelite...—a faithful remnant of one—Jesus (not the unbelieving nation) is the sole heir of all of the covenantal promises made to Abraham, Israel, and David... Life everlasting, a land flowing with milk and honey, a posterity as numerous as the stars, a perpetual reign over all creation, and uninhibited access to the Father’s presence all belong exclusively to him” (p. 2661). Both agree that at 1 Peter 1:1 Peter “implicitly claims that the church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ” (NIVZSB, p. 2539; ESVSB says "explicitly"). However, both Bibles (perhaps especially the ESVSB) also suggest multiple times that seeing a future role for an ethnic Israel is a legitimate interpretative approach.

CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS:

My general sense is that the NIVZSB is slightly more careful than the ESVSB to avoid offending its readers—or, to state things more positively, that it is aiming to please a slightly larger readership.

On the one hand it is equally careful to adhere to the basic evangelical commitments (things such as traditional authorship and the historical reliability of Scripture), while also feeling equally free to adopt recent approaches to synthesizing the Bible and science (no firm stance on the days of Genesis or the question of evolution).

On the other hand, it seems slower to affirm some of the more fundamentalist ideas of evangelicalism (things such as capital punishment or a special plan for the future of ethnic Israel), it feels slightly more cautious as it affirms some points of evangelical doctrinal dispute (inability of true believers to fall from the faith, distinct gender roles in the church), and it is sometimes slower to pick sides at all regarding what the text means for today (the Christian and the military).

But such differences are comparatively minor when set within the widely diverse translations and study Bibles currently on the market. Both the NIVZSB and the ESVSB are solidly conservative evangelical and among the very best in their class. I am very happy to recommend both for your judicious use.
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The ESVSB is still about as good as a study Bible gets. I give both 4-1/2 out of 5 stars.
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on February 2, 2016
I love this study Bible. It's very helpful in understanding what is going on in the part of the bible you are reading. The ESV is an awesome translation. It is very accurate and easy to read. I highly recommend this to anyone wanting to study and learn more about the bible.
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on May 29, 2015
I just received the indexed study bible, and the indexed pages are completely off except for Genesis and the Concordance. It is missing the tab for Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. So when you go to Numbers where you should see this tab, you see the tab for Judges, Ruth, and Samuel instead. I've attached a photo showing this. That means all subsequent tabs are incorrect until you get to the Concordance. I am shocked by the lack of QC and am returning this right away.
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on April 10, 2017
It has everything for the layperson. As in depth as you want or as succinct as you please. I have never enjoyed faithfully reading the Bible as much as I do now; whether it be in church, Bible study, or at home for daily devotions. Worth every penny invested to nurture my faith.
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on February 14, 2016
This is a great reference tool for anyone looking to get a better understanding around God's word. ESV is a great direct translation, that's simple enough to understand. This is the most comprehensive, indepth Study Bible on the market as far as I'm aware & is worth volumes in it's information. It covers all views, giving great insight on how to breach the subject from any point of view. If you can only have one Study Bible, I highly recommend this one, unless you're a new convert, I'd recommend starting with a Life Application Study Bible, before moving onto this highly in depth study Bible.
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on August 12, 2016
ESV is considered as my first choice of the Bible version, my reviews on the make of the book, quality material for sure, book is in good size, can put in medium sized shoulder bag, portable, and the colorful pictures and charts, and the commentaries are very educational when it comes to understand a full chapter, of course, God's words and His wisdom is way beyond my plain comprehension, and I hope this good study Bible would help me move further a little bit in understanding the profound and perfect knowledge from Him! I am so happy, and it will keep me busy !!! Thank you Amazon for the quick delivery by the way, I ordered in the morning, and when I came home, it is already there !!
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on February 20, 2015
I had downloaded the freebie ESV Bible for Kindle. I had read that the ESV translations are very good. I have been using the ESV as my primary Bible for a number of years and I have no major objections. (I do have some minor objections regarding how a few specific verses were rendered but this has been the case with any translation.) I have used this freebie Bible as a repository for sermon notes on my Kindle for several years and have been satisfied.

I bought the ESV Study Bible in 2012 and have been using it almost daily since then. I was impressed with the reviews and at $8.54 (the price back then), I considered it a bargain considering the wealth of material. (Apparently, it has been revised since then and the price has gone up. I haven’t allowed my Bibles to be updated as I’m afraid my notes will be erased. I’m in the process of converting these to my YouVersion app. When that is done, I’ll see where the updates take me.)

This Bible has impressive resources including dozens of maps, historical contexts, doctrinal explanations, and numerous essays by Biblical scholars. The list of contributors is top shelf. The introductions and supplemental content for each Bible book covers the situation the book covers, bios of the authors/main people, doctrinal takeaways, timelines, and other details that add to the understanding of the passages. The scriptural cross-references are well done. (It may be occasionally difficult for Kindle users to tap on a reference in those instances when a “page” has several references clustered together. Altogether the Kindle navigation is, for the most part, well done and intuitive.)

There are also a number of essays that cover the canon of scripture, Biblical ethics, Doctrines, interpretation, archaeology, languages, world religions, cults, and numerous other topics that give a well-rounded examination of the pertinence and role of the Bible in the Christian worldview.

One thing that you will NOT find is a lot of discussion and topical issues. This ESV is more appropriate for those with an expository bent. This Bible also is not very dogmatic when it comes to theology. It does not take positions on stances related to denominations and various flavors of orthodox Evangelical Christianity.

I have just started to read another study Bible – but not because this one is lacking. I got a good deal on a Bible that is more topical and with authors I respect. This ESV study Bible will always have a place in my Kindle library.
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on April 27, 2017
I have used this Bible for years and I love how in depth the study notes are; it really puts a new perspective on things that I might not have thought of otherwise. I have since purchased 2 more as gifts, and both recipients were excited to get them!
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on June 6, 2016
Love this! Quality feels nice. Love the notes and intros to each book. I do wish it had red letters for when Jesus is speaking, but other than that, this is my favorite!
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on April 1, 2016
I just started using it, and I love it! Let's face it, the Bible was written a long time ago and some of the references that would have made perfect sense in biblical times are confusing or even nonsensical to contemporary readers. I love all the footnotes at the bottom of each page that provide context and comparisons to other verses.
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