ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set: A “New” Old Bible

This review originally appeared in the Christian Library Journal. It is used here by permission.

The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, published by Crossway (cloth over board with cardboard slipcase), is something old, something new, something different, and something blue green—if you get the beautiful cloth-over-board edition, which is what’s best for libraries. It’s old, because presenting text in a simple, beautiful, and typographically intelligible way is an old idea. It’s new, because hardly anyone has ever made a Bible so innovatively old. It’s different, because Bible design has been in a deep rut since longer than you can remember.

What is theESV Reader’s Bible? Look:

No chapter numbers, no verse numbers, no double columns—this is a Bible with type set like a regular non-fiction book. You can’t see it in the image above, but the Bible also has uncommonly large type for easy reading and thick paper so text doesn’t show through as much as it does with normal (and very thin) Bible paper.

The ESV Reader’s Bible has come in a single-volume edition, with that thin Bible paper, for several years. What’s brand new—and exciting for those who care about the confluence of form and meaning in Bible typography—is the beautiful six-volume set. All Christian libraries should acquire it, not because of the hype currently surrounding Bible typography (yes, in a portion of the Christian world there is genuine hype over this topic), but because there is something of genuine substance being recovered by “reader’s” Bible editions.

That something—as detailed by writers like Glenn Paauw (Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well), Christopher R. Smith (After Chapters and Verses), J. Mark Bertrand (The Bible Design Blog), Andy Naselli (professor), and me, Mark Ward (presenter of “Why Bible Typography Matters”)—sounds something like this: divvying up the Bible into chapters and (especially) verses is not always conducive to healthy Bible reading practices. In particular, Christian people can tend to read verses out of context when each verse is treated (typographically) as a separate paragraph. A reader’s Bible, which is available in many translations besides the ESV (the NIV, TNIV, KJV, and [modified] ASV all have reader’s editions now), uses all of the typographical conventions skillful modern readers rely on for other nonfiction books: single columns, paragraphs, poetic indents, and simple, beautiful typography. Gone are not only the verse divisions but the superscript numbers and letters and the cross references and the columns and the study notes—all the things that clutter up and sometimes positively obscure the Bible text on the page.

The ESV Reader’s Bible is not an attack on verse numbers. This reviewer works for a Bible software company (Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software), and without those numbers our work would fall apart. Commentaries, confessions, reference works, sermons, and countless other Christian resources rely on the verse reference system. It is helpful for many, many things—but not, ironically, for reading. Now that we all have Bible apps which can find any verse, why do we need verse divisions in our printed Bibles? Truth be known, most Western Christians already have multiple Bibles in their homes. We have not needed all of them to be feature-studded study editions (rather than reader’s editions) for a long time.

The six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible comes with a slipcase, cloth-over-board bindings, thicker and creamier paper, and an attention to design detail that clearly borrows from the design of the past and the present. It even arrives in a beautifully designed box. Some have suggested that it and other reader’s Bibles (particularly Bibliotheca, a massively successful Kickstarter campaign that the ESV Reader’s Bible beat to the public by a few months) are hipster ephemera like other bespoke throwbacks—making one’s own pickles, vinyl record stores, handlebar mustaches, etc. But the aesthetics of the unboxing can be viewed from another perspective: the value of place. There is a story to reader’s Bibles, an infused delight in the craft of printing and design, a return to typographical roots.

I am convinced, and have been for over a decade, that reader’s Bibles are not a gimmick. I therefore hope and pray that it will not be a mere fad. Christian librarians, whose lives are spent in the pages of books, would do well to read up on reader’s Bibles, capitalize (yes) on the hipsteria over them, and help Christians see the value of reading the Bible as story, prophecy, poetry, and epistle rather than as reference volume. Whether the ESV Reader’s Bible gets read as an artificial marketing gimmick or an authentically valuable way to encounter the Bible is up to readers and those who serve and educate them.

Mark L. Ward, Jr., CLJ

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set: A “New” Old Bible”

  1. The ESV Reader’s Bible (1 volume) has been more helpful to me than I anticipated. It’s not the Bible I read from every day (I don’t have one, I change all the time), but when I do read from it, I enjoy it more than probably any other. I didn’t expect that to happen at all.

    I’m sure the same would be true of the six-volume set, if I ever acquire it.

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