I work for a Christian publisher, and we have made Bibles of various kinds. If you could listen to our internal discussions, you would hear quickly that Crossway sets the standard for Bible publishing. More beautiful typography and more innovative editions have come from Crossway than from any other organization serving the Bible-reading public. The most popular post in the history of my blog is an implicit argument that the ESV’s market share among Bible readers has a lot to do with Crossway’s leadership in beauty and innovation.
Crossway has just come out with four more editions of the English Standard Version, all of them worthwhile and well-executed variations on existing ideas. I say: more makes me merrier. If the market is actually sustaining all these niche editions, that says something good about the market (as long as people are actually using these editions and not just sticking them on shelves—I pray they are).
Let’s take a look at each of the four new ESV editions.
1. The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, with chapter and verse numbers
I have worked to do my small part to encourage the growth in Reader’s Bibles—and in this new set, the story has taken an unexpected turn I wasn’t sure I would welcome: the return of chapter and verse numbers to so-called “Readers” editions.
But then I saw the volumes.
They’re everything they ought to be. You can’t help but delight in the fine craftsmanship on every level, from the elegant type—Trinité, from the same designer (Bram de Does) who made Lexicon, the face that I fell in love with when Crossway used it the ESV Study Bible—to the beautiful cloth bindings and slipcase, the opening of which slopes backwards a bit so volumes can easily be pulled out. They thought of everything.
I recently pulled out my old Zondervan Comparative Study Bible from the late 1990s. I derived much profit from this edition, but looking at it with eyes formed by years of Crossway Bibles is a negative experience. It’s all function, no form—to the point that the forms harm the function. Every verse is its own paragraph; actual paragraphs of meaning are set off by unhelpful pilcrows (¶); the type is banal; and the Bible smells bad. (Okay, it doesn’t actually smell bad.)
Crossway has taught us again what we should already have known from Gutenberg and many others over the centuries: beautiful form is a necessary part of the function the Bible ought to play—in a life, and in a culture. How did we descend to the Comparative Study Bible from this?
Now if I had to choose between having no Bible and having an ugly one, I’d still treasure that ugly one. And we Protestants don’t (or shouldn’t!) reverence the physical object of the Bible the way Muslims revere the Qur’an.
But truth, goodness, and beauty are friends. No—triplets. No—conjoined triplets. They belong together in God’s world. Crossway knows this. (If you’re wondering where the goodness part comes in, and this is not flattery but truth, Crossway also clearly cares about the mission they have. Good News Publishers, which owns Crossway, is a non-profit that started as a man and his wife publishing gospel tracts.)
This Bible is essentially the same as the six-volume Reader’s Bible that I reviewed in 2016; it simply adds the numbers back. Each page is still spare and readable—and I love the artful use of red type for headings and drop caps.
If you want a lifelong reading tool but feel you can’t do without the numbers, this Bible is for you.
2. ESV Illuminated Scripture Journal; Old Testament Set
Next up: the Illuminated Scripture Journal; Old Testament Set. This is a set of paperback (though the paper covers are reasonably hefty and durable) journals allows you to take copious notes on every page of the Bible.
Once again, beauty is called in to serve its proper role—but this time, beauty is, uh, the conjoined triplet who is determining where the others walk. The hand-lettering in gold ink from Brooklyn artist Dana Tanamachi is nearly overwhelming.
Even more famous international artist Roy G. Biv was asked to provide the colors for the spines of each individual volume.
When you remove the ornate slipcase cover and pull out a volume, you are treated to more ornateness in gold leaf.
You are also treated to an empty page for notes paired with every page of the biblical text. All note-taking pages contain a subtle grid of dots to facilitate neat notes. Some also include a little beautiful design.
Others include an instance of Tanamachi’s hand-lettered verse art. It’s hipster and classic at the same time; I’m hoping that means it will feel fresh thirty years from now, too, but I can’t know that.
The back of the beautiful box offers some suggestions for how these journals might be used. Art journaling, writing prayers, Scripture memory, and—here’s what I would have used them for had they been given to me as a college student—taking sermon notes. I would also have used them for writing down my own notes during personal Bible study.
But here’s why I use “would” instead of “will”: I just can’t see myself using these stupendously attractive little volumes upon which such care has been lavished. I am not a paper note-taker. I was in ye olden dayes. I have reams of notes from the top Bible expositor in all of Bootleg Corner, SC.
But the only sermon notes I ever use today are the ones I took electronically—once I got a little Palm Pilot IIIxe. I do use those notes regularly, because they are easily accessible. They contain lots of great exegetical insights and illustrations. But I lack the energy to access my paper notes. They sit forlornly on a shelf. My one attempt to scan them ended in failure.
So this set of Scripture journals is probably a great gift for a young person entering his or her college or seminary years—someone who has already bucked his or her generation by preferring paper. Such people do exist. They need the ESV Illuminated Scripture Journal Old Testament Set.
3. ESV Scripture Journal Set: New Testament (Hardcover)
This set is more functional, though still quite aesthetically pleasing. There are no illuminations, but, honestly, that makes them feel more like something I would use in church. They’re not too flashy. They look appropriately serious.
The set includes nineteen little journals laid out the same way the OT set is laid out: Bible page on left, elegantly ruled note-taking page on right.
How precious would it be to have all my Ephesians notes from 1997–2002 in one of these little journals?
The paper is thick and nicely opaque; it has a light and creamy color. The binding on these hard-cover journals lies flat. This set is well done, well done.
Let’s be honest here: you probably aren’t going to take detailed notes on the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1–9. The minor prophets are probably not going to get the same attention as the Gospels and Paul’s epistles. This does not mean we have a canon within the canon, that Haggai ceases to carry divine authority. If a minor prophet volume from the ESV OT Scripture Journal falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to read it, it is still God’s Word. And Christian people do hear it.
But different portions of God’s revelation are given for different purposes, and it is appropriate that John 3:16 is more commonly known than Esther 3:2. There are “weightier matters of the law,” and John and Romans are it. New Testament books are also given in genres—especially Gospel and epistle—that compacts a lot of truth into short spaces. The narratives of Genesis can do the same: think Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Genesis 3. But they can also stretch truth out over more pages. Parsing the grammatical niceties of Numbers 3 (Korah’s rebellion) is simply less likely to yield as much truth-per-millimeter than parsing the grammatical niceties of Romans 3. In numbers we parse discourse niceties and are more often to measure truth by the meter.
Upshot: don’t necessarily feel guilty for filling your NT volumes more full of notes than (many of) your OT volumes. Genesis and Psalms and Proverbs may get more notes than other books, and that can be okay. It is possible to neglect the OT, surely, but I think I’ve offered some reasons why fewer notes need not mean that’s what you’re doing.
Don’t feel guilty for buying journals for just the NT, either. They’re really beautiful and useful.
4. ESV New Christian’s Bible
In order to maintain my objectivity, I have to review a new ESV Bible I’m not quite as keen on. The ESV New Christian’s Bible was actually something I was excited about. I’m doing a Bible study through Romans weekly with someone I hope is a new Christian, and I wanted to review this Bible so I could give it to him.
But I was a little underwhelmed. The notes for new Christians feel a little sparse and even desultory. They’re short; they don’t take up much space in an otherwise straightforwardly normal two-column layout. Typography in ESV Bibles is always good, so this hardcover edition is still certainly worth using. But it isn’t anything to write your homeschool about.
The little call-outs cover “core Christian beliefs” such as…
- The image of God
- The fall into sin
- God’s law
- The Ten Commandments
- God’s Word
- The Lord’s Prayer
- The Trinity
- Bearing Fruit
- The Lord’s Supper
- The Incarnation
- Jesus’ death for us
- New Birth
- The Holy Spirit
- The local church
- Spiritual gifts
There are many great translations of the Bible out there into English. I’d be grateful to have even just one of the mainstream evangelical efforts. I do see literal translation in the tradition of the King James as having proven its usefulness. Over many years of weighing more literal translations against less literal ones (the major ones are still all pretty literal), I just can’t pick a “winner”—if “winner” means I have to give up the “loser.” I get value out of all major translations.
But I do tend to see literal translations as a study baseline. If I have to pick a place for people who can read pretty well to start, I’ll pick literal translations. And among those I like the ESV best—precisely because it comes in so many beautiful and useful editions. This is why I encouraged our church (the decision was not precisely up to me) to go for the ESV a few years back: because I wanted to buy into a Bible-publishing ecosystem that would make it as easy as possible for our church people to stumble on useful Bible study aids like the ones I cover in this post.
I’m truly thrilled to see Crossway coming out with so many ESV editions. Where others cynically see greed (without ever once bothering to consider to think of imagining doing any homework to find out how much profit is too much for a Christian publisher, sigh), I see a healthy flourishing of interest in the Bible.
Disclosure of material connection: UPS made a material connection between Crossway and my residence. I did not buy these Bibles, and when I pulled them out of their boxes I could discern no strings attaching them to my reviews. The only one I would probably buy on my own is the New Christian’s Bible—but I would buy it in order to give it away. I did, in fact, give my review copy away to a new believer. I suppose I could imagine buying any of these four ESVs as gifts for the right person—the OT set for a kid going off to Christian college, the NT set for a young man beginning training for ministry who also liked paper more than pixels. I’m not the market for these beautiful things; I’m too tied to digital workflows. I gave away my previous six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible, too, the one without verse numbers. The paper Bibles I actually use include a nice leather-bound ESV for preaching, a one-volume ESV Reader’s Bible, and a smattering of other editions of other translations that I pick up at random on my way to church sometimes. But when I get there, child often in my lap, I usually end up pulling out Logos on my smartphone. You probably didn’t need to know all that. I hope you are the market for these beautiful Bibles, and that they will assist you in growing in your knowledge of God through his Word.
Disclosure of different material connection: I use Amazon affiliate links on my blog. I buy almost all my books from Amazon, because capitalism.