The ESV Reader’s Gospels by Crossway

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Confession: When I heard about The ESV Reader’s Gospels, which is essentially a specialized Bible featuring only the four Gospels, I thought, “Interesting concept, but practically useless.” I had a hard time determining why I would want a copy of the Gospels in their own volume, or when I would ever reach for such a book over my regular Bible. In retrospect, my eyes have been opened, and I can hardly keep my hands off this thing. So if you ask the same, skeptical questions, allow me to illuminate through personal narrative…


Factor #1: Philosophical Underpinnings

But first, if you’re like me, you need to be able to philosophically justify and legitimize most everything in your life. The editors at Crossway introduce The Reader’s Gospels with a short, two page apologia of sorts for a Gospels-only “Bible”. Here is the summary:

All Scripture is inspired by God and useful (2 Tim. 3:16), yet the four Gospels are unique, for here we see in flesh and blood the daily ministry, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here we see the dawning of the new age longed for throughout the Old Testament. For such reasons, the four Gospels have a long history of being presented to the church on their own, and we are pleased to present the Gospels in this tradition. p. viii.

I completely agree, and a self-contained, Gospels-only volume is a welcome addition as far as I’m concerned. However I am mildly concerned it could lead some to view the Gospels as a canon within the canon. But The Reader’s Gospels would not be at fault if some reached this conclusion; such a lack of discretion would be on the shoulders of the individual. That out of the way, what made me fall in love with this book?

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Factor #2: Physical Form

The first factor that warmed me to the idea of a Reader’s Gospels (henceforth RG) was actually the physical form. The book itself was so inviting, even on first glance, that I had to keep it close.  When I opened the package, the first thing I saw (after bubble wrap) was a beautifully designed slipcase–obviously useful for storage, protection, and mobility, but with style.  Being a proud owner of both the ESV Psalms and the ESV Reader’s Bible, I must say that the RG features the finest slipcase of them all. The small size plus the sturdy slipcase have allowed me to cart it around town in my backpack effectively.

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Then I turned the case sidelong so I could view the spine of the book, and it was love at first sight. The RG features raised bands, which isn’t uncommon territory to me, but the application of these bands to such a small, novel-sized book charmed me to no end.

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After removing the treasure from its casing, I was impressed by how this book was at once so simple and yet so refined. The softness of the top-grain (cowhide) leather paired with the hardness of the board cover is a tactile delight, a sort of paradox to the touch. There is one burgundy (or wine) colored ribbon marker, a perfect color for this volume, though I would have liked at least one more ribbon for comparing parallels in the Synoptics.

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thumb_P1040032_1024As with every other Bible worth mentioning, the RG features a sewn binding. Typically, we associate “smythe-sewn” or “stitched binding” with limpness, but this isn’t always true. What is always true is that a sewn binding is better than a glued one. That being said, I must issue a word of warning on the RG binding: If you’re expecting the same flexibility as your other sewn Bibles from Crossway, Cambridge, Allan or Schuyler, you’ll need to adjust your expectations. Judging by premium Bible standards, one might call the RG “stiff”, but those are the wrong standards for judging this book. The correct comparison would actually be other sewn, hardback books with regular, thicker paper–particularly novels. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the RG as “firm and not floppy, but still flexible” and thus avoid the “s” word altogether. Again, if you’re accustomed to sewn hardbacks of the same size, this will be familiar territory for you. Though they say it in reference to the inside, Crossway’s comments are fitting for the external package as well:

The presentation [of the RG] is ancient in its similarity to the original manuscripts, yet familiar in its resemblance to the modern novel. p. viii.

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Clockwise beginning bottom left: Folio Society, Everyman's Library, Everyman's Library, Easton Press, Reader's Gospels
Clockwise beginning bottom left: Folio Society, Everyman’s Library, Everyman’s Library, Easton Press, Reader’s Gospels
I love books (I know, a real surprise)…particularly when they’re well constructed, and this goes beyond just Bibles. Some of the collections I’ve become most fond of are Everyman’s Library and Folio Society, and the RG is much akin to these fine editions. It is perhaps a tad stiffer out the gate than Everyman’s books, but pretty similar to Folio. But I thumb_P1030987_1024can attest that with time and use, it does loosen up…it did slightly after one complete reading, and I expect it will get better as time goes on. The leather-over-board cover is reminiscent of Easton Press books, but I’d say Crossway’s work is better. In sum, if you want a book that will sit open on your lap or your desk, look elsewhere. But for what it is, this is a fantastic little volume! And on that note, because of the more sturdy materials (i.e. book paper rather than Bible “onion” paper), I was able to sit outside on a windy day and read it. Whenever I try that with my “normal” Bibles and their sub-40 gsm paper, it is never easy and usually ends with my surrendering and going back inside.

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thumb_P1030934_1024Now that I’ve mentioned the paper, let me just say Wow. The paper! You thought the 38 gsm paper in the Schuyler Quentel and Cambridge Wide-Margin was opaque? Try 80 gsm. Thats right, 80 gsm, printed at the ineffable Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto, aka L.E.G.O. (not to be confused with a child’s plaything) in Italy. In the RG we have moved out of the realm of the onion-esque, flimsy paper featured in almost every Bible known to to man. This is not Bible paper; this is book paper, even thicker than that of many books I own, and the result is pure magic. I will discuss the typesetting under “Factor #3”, but let me say that this 80 gsm Munken Premium Cream woodfree paper provides the hardware for this “Trinité” typeface (by Bram de Does) to come alive.

Paste down Bindings: Reader's Bible with paper liner (left) and Reader's Gospels with leatherette liner (right)
Paste down Bindings: Reader’s Bible with paper liner (left) and Reader’s Gospels with leatherette liner (right)
Before we move into more about the typesetting and my experience reading it, allow me three more notes on the book: First, it features a paste-down binding, which is the only real choice for a hardback. Second, they did a nice job making the spine slightly rounded, a breath of fresh air amid the myriad of books unintentionally designed to sport flat or concave spines. Third, the size is “just right” for reading, at roughly 5.25″ x 7.75″ x 1″.


Factor #3: Usage and Experience

The factor that sealed the deal and convinced me of the viability of The Reader’s Gospels was, well, reading the Gospels! I set out to use this Bible for my daily reading for a couple weeks, and during that time I read through all four Gospels. Personal background: I don’t subscribe to the Bible design philosophy of “go single-column or go home.” I am not convinced by theories that say chapter and verse numbers are The Man‘s tactics for making us conform to status quo and miss what’s really going on in the biblical narrative around us. In other words, I like double-column reference Bibles a lot; in fact, I generally favor them over single-column options (which is an admitted evolution in my viewpoint since this time last year). So all that being said, it is not easy for me to admit that the RG sucked me in.

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I wholeheartedly affirm what the editors have to say about the RG in their introduction:

Chapter and verse numbers, footnotes, and most headings have been stripped from the text. The result is an uncluttered reading experience that brings us seamlessly into the story of Jesus Christ. This elimination of potential distractions, combined with high-quality paper and an elegant typeface, means that the Gospels can be read like a book. p. vii

I’ll briefly describe the typesetting of the RG before I make some observations of my time spent in it. As mentioned, the wonderful 80 gsm paper in this volume provides a worthy playground for this wonderful typesetting, which features the Trinité typeface and is typeset by Crossway themselves (well done, Crossway!).  All of the design factors effectively serve to focus your attention on the text itself, sans distractions. One of my pet peeves is that many books have gutter problems–the text gets sucked into the inside margin and you get carpal tunnel trying to bend the book so you can read it well. This is certainly not the case in the RG–quite the opposite. The margins are generous at about .75″ (on the inside and outside), thus framing the text and allowing your eyes “easy access”. The font is 12 point, and I can’t think of any book I’ve encountered that is more legible, and that includes every type of book (not just Bibles).

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The RG’s words per line count is optimal, coming in at less than the ESV Reader’s Bible and the Legacy (and probably even the Clarion). The leading is just right. The result is that the amount of text per line and per page keeps you flipping pages and reading easy. There is a subtle and classy use of red too. Let me tell you, I haven’t been more excited about a new typesetting since the Schuyler Quentel.
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As for “what’s included” in the text itself, the RG features the text of the Gospels with no chapter or verse numbers. There are some section headings, but nowhere near as many as in a traditional Bible. Since you asked, there are only 9 section headings in all of Matthew, 4 in Mark, 7 in Luke, and 5 in John. In my reading, these headings help the narrative rather than hinder it, like they can do when they’re more frequent and “random” as in the traditional Bible. The RG‘s section headings are almost like chapter breaks in a novel, dividing up long chapters and giving you just a smidgen of editorial guidance as you wade through the narrative and discourse. And the headings are admirably and helpfully tied tightly to the themes of each individual Gospel. For instance, the themes of Messiah and Kingdom in Matthew are captured in the following 9 subject headings: The Arrival in History of Jesus the Messiah, The Sermon on the Mount, The Authority of Jesus the Messiah, Opposition to the Messiah, Parables of the Kingdom, Teaching the Disciples about the Kingdom, The Messiah’s Authority over Jerusalem, The Messiah will One Day Return, The Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Messiah. These headings help tell a story rather than simply helping you find a verse to lift out of context, which is sometimes how we like to use them in our normal Bibles!

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Even though there are relatively few section breaks in the RG, I found that my mind could detect the flow of the narrative without all the help. Every once and a while, I would recall what chapter I was in from memory, and I was often surprised at how far I had gotten without realizing it. The lack of breaks doesn’t offer you as many chances to stop as a typical bible, and the result is that you just keep reading!

Another phenomenon I noticed in reading the Gospels in this format is that things stood out to me that had not really done so before. For instance, regarding his predictions of his sufferings in Mark, the narrator says of Jesus, “And he said this plainly.” Jesus left no room for misunderstanding as to his pending fate, and somehow reading in this novel format helped me to see some of the narrative details like this better. Similarly, when Peter suggests setting up a campsite for Elijah and Moses during the Transfiguration, that Mark explains: “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” At a few points I suspected that the editors had pulled a fast one and slipped in additional content– that’s how fresh this reading was to me.

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The RG helped me notice more connections than I sometimes do, as I could not rely on the editors help as much. For instance, in Mark’s rendering of the parables, Jesus tells the disciples to “stay awake” in preparation for the master’s return, and only a few pages later, ironically, we find the disciples sleeping in Gethsemane while Jesus prays. I detected a similar contrast when the scribe says to Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion”, only to find Pilate releasing Barabbas to satisfy the crowd and protect his standing just pages later in the narrative. And for a final example, the rampant trinitarian theology of John’s Gospel came alive to me like never before (which is a foundational distinctive of John’s Gospel). Extended time in the RG allowed contrasts, connections, and themes to appear to me in this way, and the lack of distractions such as subject headings certainly played a big role in making that happen.

Similarly, this uninterrupted layout brought out tension in the narrative more, thus forcing me to do some deep thinking. In some cases, two paragraphs that are in direct sequence seemed to have no apparent connection to one another. There would probably be a section heading in other Bibles separating them, but in unbroken narrative it goes from one saying to the next without prelude or explanation, forcing the reader to ponder the flow in its own rite, apart from most editorial pointers. This wrestling with context is the essence of biblical interpretation, and is a pleasant byproduct of reading the RG.

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Again, the editors of the RG say it well:

One downside of modern editions of the Bible is that things like chapter and verse divisions can hinder us from reading large portions of Scripture without interruption. This can prevent us from encountering the chapters and verses of the Bible in the larger context of the documents that contain them. We miss out on the flow of the argument, the arc of the story, and the broader contexts of individual verses. p. viii.

thumb_P1040047_1024True to my experience, though I would qualify this quote by pointing out that the whole-canon context is also necessary for fully picking up the larger biblical arcs and flow. Interestingly, and helpfully, Crossway includes the chapter numbers and their corresponding page numbers as an appendix in the back:

I will say that I was frustrated more than a few times because I’m so used to having my Bible software on standby on my iPhone, ready to look up commentary as needed. Without chapter and verse, this is made more difficult. But in all fairness, this is the reasoning behind a reader’s edition– to remove distractions and zero in on the words of scripture themselves–chapter, verse numbers, and commentary be darned.

One minor quibble is that the dialogue is not always broken up as it ought to be, but overall this is a nearly perfect production:

Not enough new paragraphs in dialogue
Not enough new paragraphs in dialogue
Comparisons

What makes the RG better than other, single-column, reader-optimized attempts such as the NIV Books of the Bible, ESV Readers Bible, Cambridge Clarion, ESV Legacy, etc? I’ll put it simply: There is no other existing edition (of which I’m aware) that goes “all the way” in presenting any significant portion of Scripture in the same format as a novel on the same (or higher) quality and weight paper. This is a foretaste of what we will see in Adam Greene’s forthcoming Bibliotheca. For the sake of simplicity, take a look at the table (and please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about the Books of the Bible by Zondervan):

NIV Books of the Bible ESV Reader’s Bible ESV Legacy Cambridge Clarion
Onion Paper  X X X X
Chapter Divisions X X X
Verse Divisions  X X
Subject Headings X X
Cross-References X

Conclusion

thumb_P1030996_1024I think its true that for every Bible I’ve reviewed on this blog, I basically formed my opinions within minutes of opening the box, and these opinions rarely changed with time and usage. The Reader’s Gospels has broken this trend. Through slow, nitty-gritty use and interaction, the RG softened my skepticism and convinced me of the usefulness of reader-optimized Bible editions. I’ve said before, Crossway is doing the church a service in rolling out so many specialized Bibles, and this one is perhaps the most unique yet.

My double-column reference ESV is still my favorite Bible, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon (Allan ESV New Classic Reader’s for the curious). But there is something about seeing the familiar stories in this novel format that brings a freshness to them, and for this reason, I expect to return to the Reader’s Gospels time and time again.

The RG is slotted for an August 31 release and will be available in in top grain-over-board or cloth-over-board. Both would be worthy choices (though the latter is significantly cheaper).


Postscript: An Appeal to Crossway

Dear Crossway,

Would you consider making an entire, multi-volume Bible with the same typesetting as The Reader’s Gospels? I could envision a 5-volume set: Torah, Writings, Prophets, Gospels-Acts, and Epistles…and I would be your first buyer! What say you, Crossway?

…What say you, readers?


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.

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37 thoughts on “The ESV Reader’s Gospels by Crossway

  1. Hi, thanks for this review. Did you receive this Bible from Crossways for review purposes? (It doesn’t seem to have been released yet) . I’ve been considering the ESV reader’s Bible for sometime now, but I was excited to see this gospel edition was even more true to what I have been looking for. Unfortunately, when I emailed Crossways they said they weren’t planning on producing any additional parts of the bible, which is a shame, as I would really like a multi volume set like this – I don’t suppose you have had any discussions with them about it?

    1. Hi Ben! Yes, it was an advance review copy. These aren’t yet available for purchase, but will be sometime this month. We the customers may be able to convince Crossway to make a multivolume reader’s Bible! Or another possibility would be Adam Greene getting rights to make his Bibliotheca available in other translations. But all these things are probably far off, unfortunately. For now, Bibliotheca would be worth considering…I have one set on preorder. But for what it is, The Reader’s Gospels is an incredible step in the right direction.

      1. Yes, I have been mulling over Bibleotheca for sometime now. I wish they would offer some sample pages as it is a little hard to know how the translation (and how they alter it) is going to read. Anyway, I’m very pleased that this type of Bible is being considered now as it is something I have been wanting for sometime.

  2. I’ve wanted a multi-volume reader’s Bible in the ESV for years. It seems like the best around the design problems posed by the Bible. When I’m reading the Bible, I only really need the book I’m currently in. And then, I could carry it around with me, and read it whenever I have the time.

    When I want to sit down and study, I can pull out a Study Bible, or (more likely), my Journalling Bible and the internet.

    Anyway, this looks great. I hadn’t even considered getting this, but now I’m tempted.

  3. I wholeheartedly second the thought that Crossway should produce the whole Bible in a multi volume format, in the typesetting of the Gospels here. I would love to have a row of those in their slipcases on my bookshelf. I would be so beyond excited about that opportunity to luxuriate in the text itself of the whole Bible. I’m overwhelmed at how spectacular the “Reader’s Gospels” is here, and I can’t wait to read mine when I get it. Fantastic review!

  4. Hi Jeffrey, I was wondering if you could tell me how they handle John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. Do they include them? And do they still leave out footnotes or do they break with that for those sections and leave a footnote?

    1. Hi Ben…great question! They deal with it much like in any other ESV, namely, they bracket it and precede it with a statement about early manuscripts lacking the bracketed content.

      1. Great, thanks for the info! Would I be correct to presume that these are (basically) the only places where they break the no footnote etc rule for this reader’s edition (to keep the novel like experience)?

  5. I am an Orthodox Church Priest and I thought that some of your readers would like to know that a separate Gospel Book has been a phenomenon that has been a part of the daily Liturgical life of the Chuch going right back to at least the fourth Century, if not before. During what is know as the Lesser Entrance of the Divine Liturgy (Holy Communion Service) the Gospel Book is elevated and carried into and through the body of the Church building and then taken back into the sanctuary and placed on the Holy Table. Thereafter the set Gospel reading for the day is read and a homily will follow this. Thus the complete Gospel book is read through at least in full once a year and some parts on a number of occasions. The Gospel Book may even be ornately covered with silver or gold and may even have precious and semi-precious stones incorporated into the cover. Many will know of the famous Lindisfarene Gospels and there are others like it. This is still an essential part of the daily life of an Orthodox Christian in the Services and has been since the very early Church probably going right back to the persecuted Church when the Christians of that time gathered in secret and in some places in the catacombs. Reading of the Gospels is encouraged as a daily private routine and other sections of the Bible as well.

  6. Add my voice to the call for a multi-volume set of this caliber. I’m on board with bibliotheca but would love an ESV version. For my morning reading and prayers, I prefer to read, not study. Obviously, any bible allows this, but it’s nice when it is formatted and designed from the ground up for that purpose. I’m excited to get my copy of the Reader’s Gospels as it looks like they’ve made some pretty significant steps closer toward a reader-tailored bible, progressing even from the ESV Reader’s Bible which I currently use. Thanks for highlighting these improvements as I probably wouldn’t have pulled the trigger otherwise.

    This is the first blog post I’ve read of yours, so forgive me if you’ve discussed this elsewhere, but I’d love your opinion on household bible count. I’ve got my own thoughts on the matter but would love to hear your perspective.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Wesley! As for household Bible count, I have never written anything about that actually. I don’t have any strong opinions, but I do think its easy for us Bible nerds to justify our collections out of some misplaced sense of necessity. I feel we should just own it as it is: If we have multiple premium Bibles, its because we like them, not because we need them…and thats okay. There are certainly more expensive hobbies and collectors items out there! I keep multiple goatskin Bibles around, but I just as often use Accordance Bible Software for translation comparisons, so theres no real “need” for the collection. I have them because I like them and use them…I try not to keep them around if they aren’t used (so in that sense, I’m not a real “collector”).

  7. If Mk. 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 are the only disputed passages that are bracketed, then what does the ESV Reader’s Gospels do at the points where entire verses are disputed other than those two passages? — I’m thinking specifically of Mt. 17:21, Mk. 9:44 and 9:46, Mark 15:28, Lk. 22:43-44, Lk. 23:34a, and John 5:3-4. Are all those passages simply passed by without comment?

    1. Good question, James. These verses are largely just skipped over without comment in any ESV I know of (and other translations too if I’m correct). There are footnotes in my reference Bibles explaining the “omitted” verse references in some cases, but they don’t use footnotes in a reader’s edition like this. I think in most of these cases, its scribal error or insertions that account for the divergence in the manuscripts, but I’m not sure without looking at each one. Sound right?

  8. I am so excited for this! I am going to order one 🙂 Did you contact crossway about releasing a multi-volume set? Are there any plans for them to do this?

  9. I received my copy of this yesterday and read from Mark last night. Everything about this edition has been well done. The print and paper are great for reading and it’s an amazing experience just reading the gospels in this format. Thanks for a good review!

  10. I hope Crossway is paying attention, and sees people here calling for the same treatment to the entire Bible. I’ll also add my vote for a multi-volume Bible in this format. I do not normally read the ESV, but it is clear that Crossway is publishing the best physical forms of the Bible, and to be blunt that is leading me more and more toward the ESV. I imagine a multi-volume set of the complete Bible in the same physical format as this Reader’s Gospels would quickly become my primary daily reader.

  11. Please, please, please! Can you print each gospel as an individual booklet to be given out in personal evangelism. In 30 years abroad in mission work we have found an individual Gospel to provide “a taste of truth” for many to desire more information. A Gospel portion is better than “gimmicky” tracts. We have been enjoying using the ESV in our ministry for several years now and believe it to be the text for our time.

  12. I just wrote an email to Crossway which I’ll reproduce below in full. I’m also adding my voice to the chorus calling for a multi-volume edition of the Bible in the format of the Reader’s Gospels.

    “Greetings!

    Recently, I received a copy of Crossway’s ESV Reader’s Gospels in top-grain cowhide. What a wonderful book! I just finished reading through Matthew and I have nothing but praises. Everything about the entire production is just right, but I especially love the dividends that the typesetting and formatting pays for the reader. Reading was effortless and delightful–I often would go much further in the book without the stopping points created by chapter numbers or overdone section headings and, just as often, without realizing it initially. I made effortless connections of a current passage with an earlier one–much like I would with a regular novel. Things that haven’t stood out to me before stood out in this reading. I had to wrestle more with sudden changes or discursions in the narrative, but that’s a good thing in my book! Bottom line, I got wrapped up in the story and saw the glory of Jesus in a fresh way…and that is excellent.

    I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage Crossway to consider making a multi-volume edition of the Bible, just like the Reader’s Gospels. I would love to be able to have this reading experience with all of God’s Word. I know that Crossway currently has no plans for that, but it would be awesome (I intend that in every sense of the word). It would take a lot of work but I believe that there’s a real demand for a production like this (see Bibliotheca). Also, once more Christians became aware of the benefits of reading the Word like this, I predict that the market for such a production would only increase.

    Sincerely,
    John Veazey

    PS If Crossway decides to undertake this project, please do both cloth-bound and top-grain leather versions (both are fantastic…and so the set can match my Gospels). :)”

  13. Thanks for the excellent review. You are correct on the NIV Books of the Bible, it is onion paper. As an alternative, the “New Testament in Modern English” by J.B.Phillips is in regular paperback format. It is a “dynamic equivalence” translation but not a paraphrase like the Message. Depending on the printing, they have verse numbers on the margins (this is the one I have). The current printings are somewhere between a novel and mass-market paperback quality with glue binding, so the printing quality is nowhere near the one achieved by the ESV reader’s gospels. But it does provide the entire New Testament in non-onion paper.

  14. Jeffrey,

    Excellent review! I’ve been a huge fan of my ESV Reader’s Edition for the past year and have loved the simple format for daily devotions. Would you recommend this volume if I already have the Reader’s Bible? It’s always hard to justify one more Bible when I already have more than I need, but I would love to see the gospels through a fresh pair of eyes!

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Aaron. Short answer: Yes, I would recommend it even if you have the Reader’s Edition. But since you raise it, maybe from a stewardship standpoint you want to check out the cloth over board rather than the top-grain leather one (at least thats easier to justify!). Both are surely excellent. If you get it, let us know what you think!

  15. I received my copy of the RG a few days ago, and wow! Just wow! The reading is so much more natural, it’s amazing! So many new things stand out in the text! I would absolutely love to get an entire Bible formatted like the RG, or at the very least, another volume with the other half of the New Testament.
    I especially love the new section headings. I love the red accents. I also love that they broke up the sections by the literary transition points, and the fact that they’re unique to each gospel. It would be fantastic if crossway released o multi volume set like this! Ideally with the same methodology for section headings and throughout.
    Thank you Jeff for turning my attention to this! This little volume has the best typography of any Bible I’ve ever seen. The rest of the Bible deserves to be set in the best.

  16. Another thoroughly excellent review! I have the Readers Gospels in the very nice cloth over board edition (CBD, under $14) and I agree with everything in your review. I don’t have storage space and probably won’t get the six-volume set, but as someone else mentioned, I’d sure love to have the remainder of the NT, done just like the Gospels, in a separate volume. If you have Crossway’s ear, please whisper!

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