Having a B.A. and M.A. in biblical languages and exegesis, I have had plenty an opportunity to recommend biblical and theological resources to people who tend to think I may have some insight into the field. The number one tool I recommend to most people is the ESV Study Bible (henceforth “ESVSB”) because it is easily the best “one-stop shop” for understanding the Bible. The result of careful the study of many expert scholars, the ESVSB it is the most comprehensive study Bible known to man (as far as I am aware).
The following is taken from the ESVSB website:
Created by an outstanding team of 95 evangelical Christian scholars and teachers, the ESV Study Bible presents completely new study notes, maps, illustrations, charts, timelines, articles, and introductions. Altogether the ESV Study Bible comprises 2 million words of Bible text, insightful explanation, teaching, and reference material—equivalent to a 20-volume Bible resource library all contained in one volume.
Not only is the running commentary superb, but there are also many other features of value in this study Bible. Perhaps the most helpful are the 500+ beautiful color maps and 40+ other color graphics, 200+ charts, and 50+ helpful articles (ranging in subject matter from textual criticism and bible backgrounds to theology, comparative religion, and application).
Again, I heartily endorse the ESVSB! But I’m not here to review the content (though I hope to compare it with the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible in a future review). I’m here to review its newest “wrapping” by R. L. Allan & Sons (here and here).
The Outside: Cover and Binding
This is Allan’s trademark Highland Goatskin. I’ve sung the praises of these Nigerian goats elsewhere, but it bears repeating! This leather has character—a coarse grain with plenty of veins and fissures (makes you wonder what this goat’s life was like!). This leather has “give”—the softest, most supple and flexible I’ve felt. You can bend it and wrinkle it up in your hand, then it returns to its previous form when you flatten it out. Its like memory foam! This leather has class—the brown is rich and elegant, and the black looks to be so as well. To see a comparison between the two color options, check this video link (also below). As with most Allan Bibles, this is hand-bound in their London bindery, so it opens up as flat as a pancake whether you’re in Genesis or Revelation. And as with most Allan Bibles, there are some quirks (some cockling, particularly toward to beginning, but not bad at all).
While I’m sure Crossway’s calfskin version (available in cordovan and black) is very fine, the fit and finish of an Allan binding is incomparable.
The Inside: Paper and Text Block
The website says the ESVSB is “printed on the highest quality European Bible paper,” and I believe it is printed in China (down boy! that’s not necessarily tantamount to my dysfunctional Kodak printer!). It is very nice, bright white paper. While there is a decent amount of ghosting, I don’t find it any more distracting than my Allan ESVNC1, which is 32GSM paper. When there is a big color illustration on the other side of the page, however, it gets a bit annoying. I’m assuming that the paper on the full-size ESVSB is probably a little better, though I don’t own one.
One note on the paper: The outer margins on the ESVSB have a bit of a “ripple” effect going on, though most seem mild. I’ve seen this in all the pictures, and it proves true in my edition as well. I’ve heard from other users, though, that this diminishes with time and use (and storing heavy books on top!).
As for the interior layout, I don’t think they could have done much better. The text is formatted in a single-column, making it read more like a book than a dictionary. This is a definite plus in my mind, except for a teaching context in which a single-column makes finding your place more difficult (though very few bring a study Bible into a teaching context anyway!). The cross-references are placed in the inner margin near the “gutter”. I believe this is the best possible scenario in a single-column Bible because it keeps the Bible text from curving into the gutter and thus rendering the reading experience more difficult (as in the Cambridge Clarion and even the Legacy- see below). The study notes are formatted into
two columns, and this is very appropriate given that they are meant to read more like a reference dictionary than a book! All the articles and book introductions are in one column (which maybe could have been better served in two). The only gripe I have about the single-column layout is that, in my opinion (and I can only speak for the personal size here), the combination of column width and small font size makes the reading more difficult than in a larger font single-column Bible (as in the examples listed below).
As for dimensions, this is the personal size ESVSB. That means it is roughly 5.5” x 8” x 1.75”. This is a very portable size, especially compared with the full-size ESVSB which is 6.5” x 9.25” (I’m guessing thickness is about 2” on that one). The smaller size comes at a cost however—the font of the text is 7.7pt, and the notes are 6.3pt. This contrasts with the 9pt text font and 7.25pt notes in the full-size ESVSB. Is the sacrifice in font-size worth the smaller book size? That is up to the reader. I will give my verdict below. (Side note: the smaller ESVSB also does not include all the articles, but the buyer can access the “lost” articles online if he/she so chooses.)
This Bible has all the Allan fixings, including brilliant red-under-gold art-gilding, 9mm semi-yapp, and three thick ribbons (honey gold in the case of the brown Bible). The only difference from other Allan’s here is that the ribbons are slightly thicker, perhaps to account for the thicker text-block. In any case, I love how thick they are!
Aside from the comparison to the full-size ESVSB above, I thought I’d mention a few other ESV Bibles that “read like” the ESVSB (i.e. single column) but are “text only” or “text plus cross-references”. The ESV Single Column Legacy Bible by Crossway is probably the
most innovative, and my current favorite. It features a very smart, minimalistic layout that makes excellent use of “white space.” It also combines excellent 36GSM paper with 9pt font and line matching to make the best looking page I’ve yet seen with the least ghosting. The only premium leather option for this one is the top-grain leather by Crossway, which I happen to hate…fortunately, the trutone edition I have is extremely nice and limp. But hold
on! Crossway is releasing a goatskin edition later this year, and R. L. Allan might wrap it up in their highland goatskin next year! The ESV Clarion Reference Bible by Cambridge is another excellent option, though the paper is quite a bit thinner (available in goatskin, calfskin, and calf-split). The font size on this one is comparable to the Legacy, but the leading is more generous and the column width is 3.5” as opposed to the Legacy’s 4”, making the columns more manageable in my opinion. The New Personal Reference Bible by Crossway would be my other recommendation. This one has smaller font than the other two (8pt), but then it is a smaller Bible. It also features line matching, and shares the ESVSB’s smart placement of the cross-references in the gutter. Crossway will have a premium option available this year, but R. L. Allan might get their hands on this one next year too, which thrills me!
Are you aging? How’s your vision? If you want a Bible that you can “grow old with”, then I’d suggest you look elsewhere (and this is simply due to the small font size). If you’re fine with a temporary companion that you can pass on to your family or a friend once your eyes can no longer handle it, then the Allan ESVSB is the prettiest ESVSB out there! If you want one Bible for every possible context—one “all-arounder”, and you teach from the Bible, I’d also suggest a different edition. I find single-column layouts difficult for use in teaching contexts. But this one makes for an outstanding “reader.” Personally, nothing can beat the Allan ESVNC1 as my “all-arounder” (and I’m one who doesn’t plan on owning many high-quality Bibles long-term). For study, I use Accordance Bible Software, and I have the full ESVSB on that digital platform. As such, I’m passing on my Allan ESVSB in favor of my hybrid reference Bible + software combo. But for many others out there, the Allan ESVSB will be a great choice—and its quite possibly the most aesthetically pleasing Allan I’ve ever beheld!
Allow me to reflect momentarily on the philosophical underpinnings of my love for study Bibles and other study tools. One of my Old Testament professors at Wheaton College hammered home this notion: “The Bible wasn’t written to us; but it was written for us.” I’ll reflect more on that in another posting, but here is the suggestion. The Bible is an ancient document written by people of another time, language, culture, and provenance, and addressed to people of another time, language, culture, and provenance. At the same time, it was written by God, and intended for people of all times, languages, cultures, and provenances. But for us who are significantly removed from the time, language, culture, and provenance of the original authors and audiences of Scripture, we must acknowledge this distance and seek to bridge it through careful historical-linguistic-socio-cultural-rhetorical-literary analysis and study. In case that sounds intimidating, much of the groundwork has been laid for us in, among other places, STUDY BIBLES! So take up and read, my friends! In doing so, you are subtly admitting your indebtedness to those who have gone before and your reliance upon the larger body of Christ, even to rightly understand the Word of God.
A friend has done video reviews of these Bibles, so I commend them to you: Click here for a video review comparing the black and brown Allan ESVSB. And click here for a video comparing the ESVSB with the ESVSCR.
And lest we get lost in leather-bound English-Bible luxury, please remember to pray for translations in the remaining 1,859 Bible-less languages in our world. Click here to see my heart on the matter and to even support the work of Bible translation.