ESV Study Bible review, part 1

Six months ago I posted about the soon-to-be-launched ESV Study Bible, concluding rather hopefully that I would write a review once I’d got hold of my copy. Now, after much exploration and procrastination, here’s the verdict. It’s almost as long as the Bible itself so I’m going to break it down into slightly-easier to swallow sections…
1. The text – the most important thing
2. Study tools (and pictures) – better than Standard
3. Other resources and online version – a whole new level
4. Practicalities and conclusion

1. The text – the most important thing

Philosophy of translation
The English Standard Version is a word-for-word translation. This means that the translation team have tried to take what was written in the original language and give as accurate a rendition of that word in English as possible. Other philosophies of translation give editors more freedom to explain and paraphrase within the text what they think the original author was trying to say. Although these ‘thought-for-thought’ translations can be easier to read, and thus have a more immediate impact, sometimes they go too far, or interpret the text in a way that isn’t legitimate. Having a word-for-word translation helps to mitigate against this somewhat. I also think it’s good to be as close as possible to the words which God gave to be put in His book.

Where word-for-word can be weak is if it is so literal that the sense of a passage is hard to discern. This can sometimes be the case with the ESV. Having said that, it was while looking at the Psalms that I was attracted to the merits of this translation. Reading them felt like reading poetry – which is what they are! Some translations feel very flat – everything sounds the same – but that is not the case here: a letter from Paul feels very different to the book of Proverbs. The books of the Bible were written in different styles by different people in different places for different purposes – capturing that reality in a translation is no small achievement.

Annoying or endearing?
There are some idiosyncrasies that I really enjoy such as the repeated use of “behold” (1,101 instances!) to translate the attention-grabbing imperative. Although I like it, particularly when reading aloud, I’ll admit that it does sound a bit archaic unless you spend a lot of your time with books like The Lord of the Rings.

Then there’s the use of the word “kai” in Mark’s gospel. He started 101 sentences with it and although it can be translated a number of ways, “and” is the best English equivalent. So that’s what you get repeatedly in the ESV (see below). This can sound a bit repetitive, and the reader might long for greater variation, but the point is that this is what Mark wrote and so we are confronted with his style and choices. The urgency of his account really comes across, and I think that makes for a good translation.

To give you a feel of the translation, here are Psalm 121 and a section near the beginning of Mark’s gospel.
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
(Psalm 121)

And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.
(Mark 1:21-28)
If you're interested in exploring or using this translation, it is available free online at, and you can download it for free as part of the E-sword package.

So the text is very accurate and generally highly readable – and that’s the most important thing. Everything else is a bonus. In the next section I’ll look at how the ESV Study Bible team have put together such a package of bonuses it would even impress a banker.


ESV Study Bible review: part onepart twopart threepart four.
The ESV Study Bible is available from Amazon and many other retailers.