Book Review: The ESV Study Bible

The ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Jacketed Hardcover, 2,752 pages. $49.99

(Review copy courtesy of Crossway Bibles.)

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The ESV Study Bible (hereafter ESVSB) is now available for purchase, and reviews are popping up across the Internet. Crossway Bibles was kind enough to supply us with a review copy, and I would like to introduce it to you and offer a brief review.

To begin, the ESVSB combines contemporary evangelical scholarship with the text of the English Standard Version (hereafter ESV), an “essentially literal” translation. This translation, first published in 2001, was updated in 2007. This review does not deal with the ESV translation itself, but considers the presentation and overall soundness of some study notes and articles.

As I began reading through the articles and notes in this study, I realized that there was no possibility of my reading all the notes in time to post this review. I also questioned my ability to sniff out liberalism in a traditional fundamentalist manner, but considered that I needed to try anyway. I am a layman with Bible training and about ten years of lay-ministerial experience. Therefore, I do not write this review from the viewpoint of a scholar critiquing scholars, nor as a pastor watching out for a specific flock. Rather, I write as a brother in Christ who loves the Word of God and sound theology, and who seeks to serve you in your choice of profitable materials.

With these thoughts in mind, I began to read and was happily surprised to find that the contributors and editors of the ESVSB have truly strived not only to maintain a traditional, conservative theological perspective but also to identify and carefully critique interpretations that are inconsistent with this perspective. In the Preface, the editors definitively state,

The doctrinal perspective of the ESV Study Bible is that of classic evangelical orthodoxy, in the historic stream of the Reformation. (p. 10)

Within this broad “stream” the editors have sought “to represent fairly the various evangelical positions on disputed topics” (p. 11). Considering that many previous study Bibles, especially those by single individuals, present a distinct and sometimes inflexible position on matters disputed among orthodox evangelicals and that other study Bibles give way to some critical-liberal views, the ESVSB fills an important gap.

In regard to aberrant interpretations, the editors of the ESVSB state,

In passages where errors or contradictions have been alleged, possible solutions to these challenges have been proposed. At time the notes also summarize interpretations that are inconsistent with classic evangelical orthodoxy, indicating how and why such views are in conflict with Scripture. (p. 11)

We will check them on this claim to see if they truly deliver.


The presentation of this Study Bible is superb. I have only handled the hardcover edition, but as I have followed bloggers who have purchased the other editions (calfskin, TruTone, and Genuine Leather), the common reaction seems to be the same: WOW! This study Bible is a big deal, no pun intended. At 2,752 pages, this Bible weighs more than four pounds. The ESV Literary Study Bible is listed at 2.9 pounds. Other study Bibles (NIV Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, and Thompson Chain Reference Bible) weigh in at about 3.2 pounds. As you see, the ESVSB is a true heavyweight, but don’t consider this detail to be a negative. This Study Bible is heavy, but it more than makes up for the extra weight in valuable content. At nearly two million words of text and notes, the editors equate this resource to “a 20-volume Bible resource library” (p. 9). Considering that your average theological hardback weighs approximately two pounds or more, four pounds is a welcome trade in place of forty to fifty pounds!

The nine-point text type in single-column, book-text format is clear, crisp, and easy to read. The paragraphed view also aids readability and is especially helpful in the poetic sections. The cross-references (80,000-plus) are included in the inside margins. I have found them to be superior to any other cross-reference system I have used. The usefulness of this system is what originally drew me to make the ESV my “everyday” Bible eight years ago. Now I carry it because I prefer the translation too.

The editors of the ESVSB show that they have carefully listened to what features the average Christian wants in a study Bible. This Study Bible hits a home run with excellent cross-references; full-color maps (200-plus); full-color dimensional views of key structures, cities, and objects; charts (200-plus); illustrations (40) spread throughout the notes; the words of Christ in black; an expansive and easy-to-manage concordance; carefully written and harmonized articles (50-plus); and the lack of a thumb index (which would take away from the little margin space available for note-taking).

Articles are scattered throughout this Study Bible. Each book is introduced with discussions of Author and Title; Date; Theme; Purpose, Occasion and Background; Key Themes; History of Salvation Summary; Literary Features; and an Outline. Study notes include a highlighted summary of each major section following the outline. Words from the text of Scripture are displayed in bold letters for easy location.


What about the content of the notes and articles? As I mentioned above, I have not been able to read every word of the notes and articles. Rather, my plan was to read up on a few key texts, a few important book introductions, and select articles. I am assuming that you want to know, just as I do, the editors’ and contributors’ view of Scripture, God, supernatural events, Israel and the church, soteriology, eschatology, and so on.

I began with Vern Poythress’ “Overview of the Bible.” Poythress is a reformed scholar who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). His article is excellent and consistent with classic evangelical orthodoxy. It is clear that this article is not a typical Reformed presentation (you will not read about the covenant of grace or the covenant of redemption). However, it leans closer to a Reformed view of God’s plan for history than to most dispensational perspectives. Poythress clearly states that “God has a unified plan for all of history” (p. 23). I believe that this initial article sets the tone for the rest of the notes and articles. In most cases the weight of the arguments are given at least a moderately Reformed position. Moderate and progressive dispensationalists will be at ease with the notes and articles. Some classic and hyper-dispensationalists may find themselves frustrated with the same.

The next issue I was concerned about was authorship and unity of the Pentateuch and Isaiah. Gordon J. Wenham’s article, “Introduction to the Pentateuch,” argues for Mosaic authorship with an allowance for “some slight revision in later eras so later readers could understand its message and apply it to their own situations” (p. 36). T. Desmond Alexander, who wrote the study notes for Genesis, also argues for Mosaic authorship and allows for “post-Mosaic elements, such as the place names ‘Dan’ and ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ (Gen. 14:14; 15:17)” (p. 39) and some slight modernization of the Hebrew.

The notes in Exodus, thankfully, do not explain away the ten plagues upon Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea in naturalistic terms. Rather, on Exodus 14:22, the notes firmly state, “Thus the text is clear that this is not a purely natural event” (p. 168).

Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., contributed the notes for the book of Isaiah. In his introduction, Ortlund explains how critical scholarship has tried to divide the book into two or three sections, claiming that each section was most likely authored by different scribes at different periods of time. Ortlund criticizes these critics and concludes, “These reasons for dividing the book suffer from severe shortcomings, and it is better to take the heading (1:1) as indicating that the entire book comes from Isaiah, the son of Amoz” (p. 1234).

Other issues I searched out are as follows:

Egalitarian or complementarian?

The notes are clearly complementarian.

  • 1 Cor. 11:7-9—“Paul does not deny that the woman was also made in God’s image, something that Gen. 1:27 explicitly affirms, nor does he deny that the woman reflects God’s glory.”
  • 1 Cor. 11:14—“Although the norms of appropriate hair style (and dress) may vary from culture to culture, Paul’s point is that men should look like men in that culture, and women should look like women in that culture, rather than seeking to deny or disparage the God-given differences between the sexes.”
  • Gal. 3:28—“There is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female does not imply that there are no distinctions in how these groups should act, for Paul elsewhere commands slaves (“bondservants,” ESV footnote) and masters differently (Eph. 6:5–9), and husbands and wives differently (Eph. 5:22–33). Paul clearly is not advocating the elimination of all distinctions nor the acceptability of same-sex marriage or homosexual relations (see Rom. 1:26–27). Rather, he teaches that old divisions and wrongful attitudes of superiority and inferiority are abolished, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. He does not take away the distinction between men and women but says they are ‘united,’ joined together in ‘one’ body, the church. The verse teaches unity within diversity but not sameness.”

Monergism or synergism?

The notes clearly state that regeneration precedes faith.

  • Eph. 2:5—“Since Christians were dead, they first had to be made alive before they could believe (and God did that together with Christ). This is why salvation is by grace alone” (p. 2264).
  • 1 Jn. 5:1—“Regeneration precedes faith (cf. 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; note on Eph. 2:5)” (p. 2436).
  • Biblical Doctrines: An Overview—Salvation—“God’s calling produces regeneration, which is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in which a spiritually dead person is made alive in Christ (Ezek. 11:19–20; Matt. 19:28; John 3:3, 5, 7; Titus 3:5). The revived heart repents and trusts Christ in saving faith as the only source of justification” (p. 2531).

Amillennial, Pre-millennial, or Post-millennial?

The notes attempt to present each position in a fair manner. I have not found an overwhelming bias.

  • See especially the Introduction to Revelation, which includes sections on Schools of Interpretation and Millennial Views. See also the notes on 1 Thess. 4:16-17 and Rev. 20.

The role of women in the church?

The notes clearly and consistently argue for male leadership in the church.

  • 1 Cor. 14:34–35—“The women should keep silent in the churches. Since Paul seems to permit wives to pray and prophesy (11:5, 13) as long as they do not dishonor their husbands by the way they dress (11:5), it is difficult to see this as an absolute prohibition (cf. Acts 2:17; 21:8–9). Paul is likely forbidding women to speak up and judge prophecies (this is the activity in the immediate context; cf. 1 Cor. 14:29), since such an activity would subvert male headship. Law also says. Paul is probably thinking of the woman’s creation ‘from’ and ‘for’ the man (see 11:8–9; Gen. 2:20–24), as well as a general pattern of male leadership among the people of Israel in the OT.”
  • 1 Tim. 2:11—“Women are not to teach men in the church but are to submit and defer to male leadership (see notes on vv. 12, 13, 14).”

Many other issue could be cited or need to be searched out or both, but these will need to suffice for this review.


I have often heard people ask, “Which one book would you want, above all others, if you were stranded on a desert island?” The Christian naturally answers, “The Bible!” Well, that would suffice, but it would by no means be ideal. We were created to be dependent upon God, who through His Holy Spirit illuminates believers’ minds so they are able to discern spiritual matters. We were also created to be inter-dependent upon each other. Proverbs 13:20 reads, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Study notes and scholarly articles are no substitute for the living Word of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, but they are a help. I like to think of it as a way of walking with wise men. Here’s the Bible I would choose to have with me if I am ever stranded on a desert island.

button.jpgJason Button received a B.A. in Bible from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He serves as the Book Review Editor for SharperIron and is the creator of TheoSource, a project to compile comprehensive lists of recommended books for Bible study. He is married to Tiffany, and they have two children, Caris Joelle and Asa Livingstone.

Click here to learn more about SharperIron book reviews.

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