ESV Verse-by-Verse Reference Bible in Top Grain Leather

P1030572Crossway continues to impress the bibliophile community. They are producing quality text blocks wrapped in a wide array of quality, sewn bindings at a prolific rate. The newest noteworthy addition to their ESV range is the Verse-by-Verse Reference Bible (henceforth, VBV). This Bible is available in Trutone (i.e. synthetic, leather-like material) for the economy shoppers, and Top Grain Leather (i.e. cowhide) for those who, like me, have had their eyes (and nostrils) opened to the wonder of lovely, tactile, aromatic premium leather bindings.


P1030522The cover material on this Bible is simple yet stunning. The moniker “top grain” or “cowhide” might mislead you. Background: I used to have the ESV Single Column Legacy Bible in “Top Grain Leather.” That one had a somewhat stiff cover that lacked leather linings, and it couldn’t come close to competing with other premium Bibles I’ve referenced on this blog. Last year, I reviewed Crossway’s Personal Reference Bible in Top Grain Leather. When it arrived and I first opened the box and beheld, I was caught off guard (in a good way). It clearly represented a new stage in the evolution of Crossway’s Top Grain Leather, and the VBV tells the same story. While their previous-generation cowhide came from Italy, they since have changed to a different supplier, Cromwell, which accounts for the improvement. And to “top” it off, this is leather-lined! Note the flexibility:

P1030495 P1030521

The feel and finish of the cover is soft and matte; it is very similar to calfskin leather. There is a slight, natural pebble grain to this supple leather that is quite attractive. Compare the appearance to the Heirloom Legacy:

Cowhide VBV (left) and Goatskin Legacy (right)
Cowhide VBV (left) and Goatskin Legacy (right)

The binding  is smythe-sewn, which is to be expected in any nice Bible.  It is also an edge-lined as opposed to a paste-off binding (see for here explanation), which is generally considered a higher-quality style. Also, the hinges on the binding will break in easily, which, when combined with the flexible leather and edge-lining, will allow VBV to lay flat with little resistance–a fluid cover that bends freely to the user’s wishes.

Opens unaided in Genesis 1
Opens unaided in Genesis 1

Another perk is the raised bands on the spine, which I personally think every premium Bible should have. They add an elegant and old-world look. Interestingly, the VBV features only four raised bands, while the  PRB has five and the Heirloom Legacy and Heirloom Wide-Margin six! I would have preferred to see more on this size Bible, but hey, I’ll take them where I find them!

Top down: Thinline ESV, VBV, Heirloom Legacy ESV
Top down: Thinline ESV, VBV, Heirloom Legacy ESV

You’ll also notice the spine is less cluttered than the Heirloom Legacy (and other Crossway productions). They usually like to make sure you know it is ESV by reinforcing it 3 times down the spine! This time it is only so labeled twice, and thus it seems the ESV is becoming more secure in its identity! Also, notice the out-of-the-box flexibility of the VBV’s cowhide as opposed to the Heirloom’s goatskin:


As for size, the VBV is 9.25″ x 6.5″ x 1.375″, making it a full size Bible by any standard, but not large when compared to the likes of the ESV Study Bible, the Schuyler Quentel, or the Cambridge Wide Margin.  This would make a comfortable pulpit Bible, both for the hands (not too large or heavy) and the eye (a clean and pleasant typeface). See the size comparisons to these other spine-banded beauties:

Top down: HCSB Minister's, VBV, Lockman NASB SCR, HCSB Study Bible
Top down: HCSB Minister’s, VBV, Lockman NASB SCR, HCSB Study Bible



Though China is often criticized for lower quality book production, this Bible showcases  The Middle Kingdom’s ability to print and bind well. It features a 36gsm Apple Thinopaque paper, and the 9 point Lexicon font is crisp and legible.  So basically, even though the paper is pretty run-of-the-mill in terms of thinness, the nice printing helps one bear the ghosting. And in case you were wondering, the words of Christ are in black.


The layout is an oldie with a twist. It is double column, which is pretty traditional and quite popular. Further, it is verse-by-verse (hence the name), meaning each verse begins on a new line–also a venerable, old design. The twist comes with the placement of references–they are not in a center column as usual, but rather on the bottom right side of the page (as with the Omega and the Heirloom Wide Margin). This placement allows for wider columns and hence more characters per line (in the ballpark of 45cpl), which is all positive in my book.

Listen to J. Mark Bertrand’s comments about the verse layout:

As a writer, I would hate to see some future editor go wild with the return key and break up my paragraphs into verse-by-verse sections. Having said that, if you prefer all these things — and a lot of people still do — this is a nice example.

As with many Bible design aficionados, my early opinions were formed in deference to Bertrand and his Bible Design Blog. Hence, a single column formatted into paragraphs was my ideal. And if you can get rid of verse numbers, headings, and anything else but the raw text itself, more power to you. However, I’ve begun to “come into my own” as it were, and my current favorite happens to be a double column reference Bible. Verse-by-verse is still a concept I’m getting used to, but I am more open to it than I was.  Here is my simple, two-pronged assessment:

  1. It is very easy to find your place, which is a positive for preachers and teachers.
  2. However, your eyes have to jump back and forth with each new verse, which is a negative for extended reading.

Each statement has its opposite counterpart. With regard to #1, I know many who would argue that finding your place is easy in any Bible if you’re used to it, even if its single column and the verse numbers aren’t very bold (or are absent altogether). With regard to #2, I know of many people who are so accustomed to a verse-by-verse, double column setting that reading Scripture in paragraphs or a single column is a difficult adjustment. So while I like to think #1 and #2 stand as general principles, there are exceptions and dissenters. But to claim about any Bible, “This one typesetting is supreme and all others distract us from reading the Bible as it asks to be read” seems reductionistic. Different times call for different measures, and different people and purposes call for different Bible designs! “To everything there is a season”, and that includes a verse-by-verse Bible.


There are really only two things I would change on the VBV. First, I would like to have had something to reduce the ghosting (or show through). Line-matching, bolder font, or more opaque paper could have helped, but I don’t want to exaggerate the problem either–its not that bad. Note the comparisons (and click and cycle through to enlarge):

You can see that the VBV’s ghosting is not really worse than the Allan ESV New Classic, which happens to be my favorite Bible and one that is highly celebrated despite its ghosting and lack of line-matching. So I don’t consider these issues in the VBV to be unforgivable sins by any means, because then I would need to use the same judgments against many other, praiseworthy editions of the ESV. But I still decided to ask Crossway why they didn’t use line-matching on this one, and their reply makes sense:

Our typesetters did not go with line-matching because by nature, the verse-by-verse is not primarily an aesthetic edition for extended reading. Incorporating line-matching, while a great feature, would have made it more difficult to end the page in an appropriate spot, resulting in lots of white space at the bottom of the page. Also, the main priority for typesetting this edition focused more on the bold verse numbers, and other mechanics of the page, other than catering to the purpose of extended reading.

Ghosting not bad
Ghosting sometimes not bad


Ghosting kinda bad
Ghosting sometimes kinda bad

As for why Crossway used China rather than Italy as before, the answer was that it keeps costs lower (for both publisher and customer) while the quality is quite comparable. In this case, I would not argue. Our friends in the Far East printed a clear, crisp text block. And another factor contributing to the ghosting is the layout itself. Verse-by-verse leaves more white space between verses, and white space invites show through from the other side of the page no matter how opaque the paper. So give Crossway and the Chinese a break…I can assure you this isn’t a communist conspiracy nor an infestation of hungry ghosts!

Besides line-matching, the only other design factor that I would change about this Bible, while keeping it at its current price point, is the inside margin. As you can see, the outer margin is a glorious 1″– perfect for framing the text and for note-taking. The inside, however, is too tight for any real use.

ESV Longprimer?

In listening to online chatter, I’ve detected longings for an edition of the ESV that approximates the Allan KJV Longprimer. This is the closest I’ve seen. Main differences? The VBV’s font isn’t as bold, and the references are removed to the bottom right. But if R. L. Allan ever got their hands on it, you’d basically have an ESV Longprimer on your hands, albeit with a more modern typeface and (arguably) a slight step down in printing quality. The Longprimer is, after all, a book printed by my kinsmen (i.e. the Dutch) at the inimitable Royal Jongbloed.

3 Verse Layouts: Allan Longprimer (top left), VBV (top right), and Lockman SCR (bottom)
3 Verse Layouts: Allan Longprimer (top left), VBV (top right), and Lockman SCR (bottom)

(For more comparisons to the Longprimer, refer to the previous photo gallery)


If you’re looking to purchase this Bible, and if you plan to use it extensively, go for the Top Grain Leather. It is more expensive, but on the functional side it is the only option that is edge-lined…and on the aesthetic side, who can say no to the siren call of raised bands and the wafting aroma of tanned cow flesh? Nobody.


This is a practical, ideal typesetting for preachers and teachers. If you, like me, have ever looked down from your audience and stumbled in finding where you left off in the text, the ESV Verse-by-Verse Reference Bible will probably be an asset! If you’re in love with verse-by-verse for extended reading, I’ll pray for you. But if you’re undecided on layouts, I don’t recommend choosing this as your reader– get something in a paragraph format for reading, of which Crossway has myriad possibilities (including but not limited to the ESV Wide Margin, Omega/ Large Print Thinline, Legacy, Reader’s Bible, and Personal Reference Bible).

On that note, I will stake a claim and say that no publisher is rolling out well designed Bibles as prolifically as Crossway. Sure, Cambridge, Allan, and Schuyler are certainly publishing Bibles that are as well designed as Crossway’s, but at nowhere near the rate of speed or wideness of variety! And so it is, the VBV is a great example of a specialized edition that meets a very practical felt need for many who communicate biblical truth from pulpit or lectern…and it looks (and smells) really good in the process.

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.




4 thoughts on “ESV Verse-by-Verse Reference Bible in Top Grain Leather

  1. Thanks for this great review. I was excited about this Bible when it was announced, but couldn’t find much information (especially photos) about it until I read your review. One question I have is why did Crossway decide to not include some way of indicating the beginning of new paragraphs?

    1. Good question! Here’s a response from the Bible Typsetting Manager from Crossway:

      “We actually included pilcrows (¶) as paragraph markers in our original Verse-by-Verse (the 2012 single column edition) and therefore, with the new Verse-by-Verse, started with looking at initial designs that did denote paragraph starts. Ultimately we favored the look of designs that left them out, which was both an aesthetic and a functional choice. The designs where we took the marks out entirely reduced the visual clutter on the page and made the verse numbers that much easier to find—the main point of having a versified edition. As Jeff says on his blog, we have had the pleasure of truly specializing the typesettings we’re doing to an extreme degree, and the Verse-by-Verse was one of our more rare “anti-paragraph” bibles.”

    1. Hi Josh! I’m not sure I can speak to that, as I’m not a preacher. I’d imagine its chiefly a matter of preference, as one can get used to most any format. However, I do think the VBV layout is sort of designed with preaching (among other things) in mind, and lots of preachers seem to appreciate it.

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