December 2, 2020

Recommendation and Review: Ten Reasons to Love The ESV Literary Study Bible

200704literaryexterior.jpgI’ve seen so many special edition Bibles the last ten years that I’ve gotten very cynical about anything new. When I see things like the Maxwell Leadership Bible or a newly released Apologetics Bible that features an endless list of “Big Names” on the front, it’s easy to get cynical. What are publishers thinking about beyond making money from niche markets?

Of course, study Bibles can be very influential. Study Bibles like Scofield, Dake’s, Ryrie and The Oxford Annotated all made particular contributions to the history of evangelicalism. In the process, many of us learned to be suspicious of how all those non-canonical notes and non-canonical information are used. Scofield’s and Ryrie’s notes made dispensationalism the majority report in evangelicalism. The OAB taught thousands of college and seminary students the basics of a critical approach to scripture. Dake’s whack-job notes continue to give heretics justification for the strange and the bizarre in the Charismatic movement.

Conservative evangelicals increasingly demand study Bibles that reflect their own views. We now have two “Reformation” study Bibles, the Macarthur Study Bible, various editions of the Geneva Bible and soon, the ESV Study Bible. I’ll admit to owning a few study Bibles myself, and being very fond of my first edition NIV Study Bible. (In fact, I’m a lot fonder of the notes and intros than I am the translation.)

My cynicism has to take a back seat to my enthusiasm, however, for the New ESV Literary Study Bible from Crossway. (You can take a 30 day free test drive courtesy of Crossway, or pick up a hardback edition for yourself for thirty-something bucks at the better online booksellers.)

Let me organize my enthusiasm a bit: “Ten Reasons I’m Recommending the ESV Literary Study Bible.”

1. The editors are the same people who wrote the best Bible Handbook I’ve ever used: The Ryken Bible Handbook. I reviewed this book here at IM and I continue to use it with my students. The helps are specifically tuned for a literary appreciation of the text and to create Bible students who interpret books, sections and chapters with competence and appreciation of genre.

2. The text eliminates section headings. This is a small thing, but it’s important to those of us who want to teach our students to interpret texts correctly.

3. The Introductions are balanced, readable, helpful and insightful. Good book introductions with sensitivity to literary issues are almost unheard of in most Bibles. These intros don’t waste your time with overly detailed outlines and material not specifically related to the text. Simple outstanding introductions.

4. Each chapter (or two) has a separate introductory section. These precede and summarize the chapters with enough supplemental information to orient you to the text, but avoiding repetition or too much detail.

5. Genre, that most neglected of all elements of the proper interpretation of the scriptures, is front and center in the ESVLSB. As a teacher of English and Bible, this is really a dream come true.

6. Single columns and wide margins, in addition to the rest of the features in the text, make the ESVLSB the ideal textbook Bible for homeschool, high school, college and seminary Bible survey courses. This is absolutely the best possible Bible to develop students who will ask the right questions when reading the Bible and develop the right habits in preparing to interpret it.

7. Throughout the Bible, there is the development of a “Master Story Line,” and the placement of each book into that story line. Again, this is pure gold when it comes to developing the right kind of Bible students. We’ve had enough of putting too much emphasis on individual verses, most of it at the expense of understanding the larger storyline of scripture.

8. Literary elements, such as symbolism, rhetoric, metaphors and themes, are all part of the introductory and summary material. Instead of being a commentary or an “answer” book, the ESVLSB gives the information and guidance that will allow all kinds of Christians of diverse backgrounds and theologies to use and benefit from this Bible.

9. No big names telling anyone what to think or believe. The Rykens have demonstrated a respect for the process of Bible student and an understanding of what Biblical educators are looking for in and out of the classroom.

10. The lack of “cross referencing” tools is an important step in encouraging the study of books and large portions of books rather than using verses to build doctrine from various sources. This is a Bible that won’t be sending students all over the Bible from every verse, but will encourage in-depth understanding of the book at hand. With this Bible, a Bible study might just stay focused on the text in front of them.

I am the chair of the Bible Department at our school, and my next project will be to secure the ESV Literary Study Bible as the required text in my Advanced Bible class, and to secure a classroom set for the use of all my classes. As a Bible teacher, the publication of this book is a real encouragement to me, and I urge all IM readers to support Crossway’s publication of such a needed tool.

(A brochure of the ESVLSB will give more details and page samples.)


  1. For the most part, this sounds really fine. Single-column, ESV, emphasis on genre and literary devices–all great; really the only thing that leaves me wanting is #10. While I can appreciate staying on target, the cross-reference notes can be VERY handy, especially to the student who may get discouraged at the first sign of real investigating to be done and throw in the towel there. Some such notes are very practical.
    I’m assuming it has a concordance as well? (my small ESV does not, but that’s only because it’s a ‘big value!’ Bible, or something like that)

  2. This sounds perfect for the way I was taught to study the scripture. We always had to type and print things out ourselves. I am very excited to hear of this new bible and will be purchasing one soon!! Thank you for your review.

  3. I love my ESV, so I’ll certainly check this out. Thanks for the review.

    Slightly off-topic: How does the Ryken Handbook compare with How to Study the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart (if you are familiar with it)?

  4. Ay, caramba. I just tonight, three hours before reading this, bought my daughter a Quest study Bible for her Bible as Literature class in public high school.


  5. This Bible has been hard to find because printing problems have delayed its release by several weeks. Just two days ago, Westminster Bookstore got some of the first copies available anywhere, and we’re selling them for 40% off!

    This Bible in just 24 hours has become our Harry Potter book 7. We have never had a product fly off our shelves as fast as this. It is obviously filling a huge need, and Michael’s review above tells us why it is so important.

  6. I got the ESV Reformation Study Bible when it came out. I love the translation. But I don’t avail myself of the notes and commentary all that often. Perhaps it’s because it’s my first study Bible.

    Anyway, I do thoroughly enjoy the ESV.

  7. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and How To Read The Bible Book By Book both by Fee and ?? are must haves if you are a teacher. The “Bible” book is an intro to Biblical genre. I’d also receommend “Reading the Bible as Literature” by Leland Ryken, one of the editors. The Handbook is the best of the bunch though in terms of useful information for the classroom. Everything you need to teach the Bible the right way.

  8. Matt Erickson says

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve got a copy and it is terrific!

  9. Well, I just hope Crossway get the binding right.
    My first two ESVs, one leather, one hard bound, have fallen apart :0(
    No, I’m not hard on my bibles, my Concordia Self-Study NIV from c. 1990 is still going strong.

  10. Michael: Though this is slightly off-topic, I’m not sure if you’re aware that John MacArthur is not considered mainstream for conservative evangelicals. According to Peter Wagner, non-Pentecostal, charismatics now make up the vast majority of the evangelical movement. Cessationist dispensationalists such as MacArthur, Greg Laurie, Chuck Swindoll et al are not as respected as you might think. Just thought I would add perspective from the non-SBC world.

  11. Mike P.: I know you said this was off topic, but I’m totally lost with your comment. What does it relate to?

  12. I have to say that I love the idea of this study bible, but have been disappointed so far in my browsing. I had hoped to see a bible that would point out the literary structure and organization of the Bible, and this edition does not seem to do that. For instance, it maintains chapter divisions as the main unit of organization, a huge literary problem, and makes no mention of such things as chiasms or the 10 “These are the generations of” phrases that organize the book of Genesis. Instead, it seems to apply the theories of literary analysis to the Bible, a considerably less helpful exercise, in my opinion.

    If you’ve seen aspects of this bible that refute this, I’d love to hear it!

  13. I agree that a person trained in Biblical literary criticism (Alter, etc) is going to be disappointed. And I totally agree about the continuing use of chapter and verse notations. (See TNIV’s “The Books of the Bible” Project.) But this is a significant step in the right direction. A HUGE step considering the preference of evangelicals for cross referenced, anti-literary approaches. Be grateful for this much and pray for more.

  14. RE: comment above about Crossway Bible binding

    Crossway has done much in the past two years to improve the binding on its Bibles. The complaints and returns to my store have gone from a lot two years ago to a dribble now, about the same as I’d expect for any book made today.

  15. Back in the Seventies, I was mixed up in a splinter church that used the Dake’s, “KJV/DAKE’S IS GOD’S WORD!” style. All I can say about Dake’s is that nobody ever read the main text, only the notes in the outer columns. And those notes not only seemed to be obsessed with point-by-point checklists, the stuff in them was just… strange

  16. The comment by Mike P. was in reference to the first sentence in the third paragraph of this post:
    Conservative evangelicals increasingly demand study Bibles that reflect their own views. We now have two “Reformation” study Bibles, the Macarthur Study Bible,…

  17. Does anyone know the measurements of the “wide margins” in the ESV literary study Bible? I like the ESV, but still use the NIV for my regular reading and study because my Cambridge University Press edition of the NIV has 1.25 inch margins on both the left and right sides of the page, which gives lots of room for notes and meditations.

  18. The pdfs show actual pages, and the specifications should be on the web site.

  19. Though the Literary Study Bible looks interesting, I think I will stick with my Archaeological Study Bible. It is a brick of weight and, like you, I would prefer it had the ESV instead of the NIV. However, the information within is almost worth its weight if you are interested in cultural and historical context.

    I also really like the Christian Community Bible. Though it is a Roman Catholic Study Bible, I still find a lot of worth in it as a Protestant. Since the notes were written by a priest in the third world rather than a large American publishing house, it helps me get around some of my own preconceived ideas on what the text means.

    Both together are invaluable for my reading of the text. Again, I wish I could get either in the ESV, which, barring doing my own translation, is the best that is out there right now.

  20. I must say that I was a lot more excited about this Bible before I started reading the notes in a little more depth. After recently being interviewed on an atheist podcast on the book of Job, I took a look at the commentary. I was quite disappointed. Of all the books of the Bible, this is almost certainly the most literary, and yet I felt it stick to some fairly simplistic interpretations of the poem.

    I agree with the above commenter that there is a lot of meaning in literary elements that just don’t get brought out – look at the different ways falling and lifting of faces is treated in Genesis, or Leviathan as the embodiment of the chaos of the sea.

    Yet, for all that, I do like the way that it does look at the large-scale structure of the books. So, I may buy the thing after all.

  21. I am also a big fan on “The Books of the Bible” and the Archeological Study Bible. If they could be somehow integrated…. 🙂

  22. Point 6 quote
    “This is absolutely the best possible Bible to develop students who will ask the right questions when reading the Bible and develop the right habits in preparing to interpret it.”

    Interesting. I ask many questions. But I don’t know if they are the _right_ questions. How do we know what the right questions are? How can we know?

  23. JC – I have a feeling that “how did Cain find a wife” doesn’t qualify…

  24. Well, I have one caveat: The pages are really too thin for writing notes, even with a fine micron pen.
    I was sort of led to believe the wide margins meant this would be a good Bible for notes. And since the text is in a paragraph format rather than starting each verse on a new line, there just isn’t enough space for notes next to the relevant verse. This is strictly a reader’s Bible. I guess I’m still waiting for a wide-margin ESV as good as my NASB by Foundation Publications.

  25. I would have to agree with the Bible having thin pages; that took me by surprise. But having this bible along with the Ryken Bible Handbook will be valuable resources in my devotional time.

  26. A Personal Thank You for all you do!