The English Standard Version
First, the basics on the translation used. The English Standard Version is a revision of the classic Revised Standard Version (RSV), which itself was an attempt to update the language of the venerable King James Version. The RSV updated most of the language, but kept the “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” for addressing the person of God. The ESV removed the remaining archaic language and changed just a few elements of style in certain places, however it remains remarkably similar to the RSV.
Like the the RSV, the translation philosophy is an “essentially literal” one. That means that when possible, the text is translated word-for-word into English from the original languages. Sometimes a word-for-word translation into English wouldn’t make sense, so in these cases the translators take a freer approach to convey what they perceive to be the plain meaning of the text. In keeping the the King James tradition, classic phrases like “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23) are for the most part retained and only slightly updated from the KJV/RSV. Key theological terms like “propitiation,” and “justification” are also present in this translation.
The issue of gender-neutral language has come up quite a bit in regards to the ESV. I think the editors chose a sensible approach, and–although not perfect–it generally produces both an accurate and understandable rendering. From the preface of the ESV:
“In the area of gender language, the goal of the ESV is to render literally what is in the original. For example, “anyone” replaces “any man” where there is no word corresponding to “man” in the original languages, and “people” rather than “men” is regularly used where the original languages refer to both men and women. But the words “man” and “men” are retained where a male meaning component is part of the original Greek or Hebrew. Likewise, the word “man” has been retained where the original text intends to convey a clear contrast between “God” on the one hand and “man” on the other hand, with “man” being used in the collective sense of the whole human race.”
For more on the ESV translation see Why I Chose the ESV
Notes, Study Articles, and Features
I personally find the Old Testament to be particularly difficult to understand, and I find myself consulting the the notes in the ESV Study Bible often in order to gain clarity on a particular cultural issue or a passage has me theologically stuck. The maps help me to understand the geographic context, and the diagrams of Old Testament structures like the Tabernacle and the Temple are absolutely fantastic. Of course the notes are equally helpful the New Testament as well when it comes to difficult passages in the Gospels and Paul’s letters.
Clearly, the notes and study articles are what make any “study bible” unique. The comprehensive nature of the study notes and the many articles in the ESV Study Bible is simply unparalleled. The 20,000 exegetical notes provide key insights into understanding the text in its theological and cultural context. They are lucidly written and for the most part very accessible to the layperson. In addition to these comprehensive notes, 50 study articles examine Christian ethics, basic theology, the basis for biblical authority and more. Taken together, these articles make up a small library themselves! Combined with the detailed maps and diagrams, as well the standard ESV cross-references (which are themselves a fantastic resource for study), and you’ve got one of the most power resources studying and understanding the Bible today.
Theological and Denominational Bias
While the ESV editors did make some effort to adhere to the “classical” Christian viewpoint and are not affiliated with any one denomination, some bias is clear in both the notes and the articles on Christian ethics. The article on Christian pacifism, for instance, represents the viewpoint without addressing the best arguments (in my opinion) and concludes that Just War Theory is the most correct solution. When it comes to the issue of ordaining women to ministry, the same thing applies–although the article does detail both positions, it clearly comes down on the side of men’s only ordination. On some of these issues that are not foundational to the Christian faith, I wish the writers had left more to the reader to decide based on the merits of the arguments themselves, without necessarily forming an explicit conclusion. It is also fair to say that the notes and articles are written from a evangelical, Protestant point of view, with certain Reformed or Calvinistic leanings. Although I am not a Calvinist, I do not find the articles on the doctrine of election, etc to be overbearing. Despite these small issue of bias, the information in the articles and notes is overwhelmingly useful, and the scholarship is top notch.
Another thing I love about the ESV Study Bible is the wide variety of editions available, from a fantastic Digital Ebook version (available on Kindle, etc), to the standard hardback (the one I own) to nice genuine leather, to the new, smaller, personal-size edition. The totally online version is super-nice, as well.
Over the years this affordable, single-volume work has become my most-used resource when it comes to understanding the Biblical text. Obviously, no single source should be your sole reference, but if you can only buy one book right now, or are just beginning to build your theology library, the ESV Study Bible is a great tome to start with. I think it would also be fantastic gift for occasions like confirmation, baptism, and ordination.
Get it on Amazon.