Back on August 8th, the ESV Study Bible Blog posted a preview of the entire Book of Jonah with study notes from their forthcoming study bible. Esteban expressed interest in a comparative review of Jonah in both the ESV Study Bible and the new NLT Study Bible. Since I recently acquired an NLT Study Bible (many thanks to Laura Bartlett at Tyndale), I decided to compare the two. Since then, I see that the NLT Study Bible Blog has posted a long list of others who have done reviews and TC Robinson has done a good comparison placing some of the notes from both side by side and commenting on them. My remarks will be more general.
First, let me say that both of these study bibles appear to be excellent choices if you're looking for a new study bible. In this review, I plan to focus mainly on the study notes of each bible since you can find discussions of the relative merits of each translation elsewhere. (For the NLT, I recommend Rick Mansfield's lengthy post. For the ESV, they link to many testimonials at the ESV Bible Blog.)
The argument over which translation is "better" often comes down to personal preference. No translation is perfect (except for the KJV 1611), so we can all find individual verses where each gave a rendering that was less readable or slightly inaccurate. I personally prefer formally equivalent versions like the KJV, ESV, and NASB for my own reading. Part of that is because I was raised speaking "Biblish" and I like the retained KJV-like phrasings of the ESV. I also read the biblical languages, so I like the transparency back to my critical Hebrew and Greek texts.
The claim that the ESV is more "readable" depends on the reader. Yes, it's more readable than the NASB usually, but the NLT uses more natural contemporary language that people who didn't grow up learning Biblical idioms like me find easier to understand. The NLT also removes the need for some study notes because they already updated things like time and date (i.e., Ezek 1:1 in NLT). If you're looking for a new translation, check out the ESV or the NLT for yourself.
In comparing the ESV and NLT Study Bibles, I looked over the NLT first. I have the finished product to examine instead of just a printout of Jonah. I agree with Jeff's comments at Scripture Zealot about the book itself. The bleed-thru can be significant and distracting because the pages are very very thin. However, it has 12 pages of full color maps, a timeline, and a diagram of the Second Temple at the back. It also has an extensive 118 page Dictionary/Concordance, a 142 page subject index, and an 11 page Hebrew/Greek word study dictionary and index. The comments about the common mistakes committed with word studies are very helpful, and I may post a longer discussion of that section in the future.
The introduction is thorough, but (like any Study Bible for the masses) they make some uncertain, messy decisions that scholars have made about the text sound like they're clean, clear, and concrete (see "Outline", p. A9). I liked the Master Timeline (pp. A20-A25) and the Introduction to the Old Testament. I also liked the fact that the issue of authorship in the Pentateuch is discussed, rather than just dismissed or ignored. I appreciate that they at least mention the work of critical scholarship, even if they disagree. A lot of study bibles simply list a book's traditional author (like Proverbs and Solomon) and then move on (i.e., my ESV Scofield III).
For Jonah, they make the distinction that Jonah is the main character, but he may not have been the author. "Jonah may have written the book, though whether he wrote it or not does not affect its integrity as Scripture" (p. 1475). Too often the issue of authorship becomes a controversial issue because people believe that a book's status as Scripture is dependent on having an absolutely correct identification of the author (almost always, we must defend the traditional author against all attacks). For the most part, biblical books were anonymous. The Pentateuch may have started with Moses but others had a hand in its composition and transmission. The same goes for much of the Hebrew Bible. Many hands make light work. While tending to support traditional conclusions (such as Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch), the NLT Study Bible at least acknowledges the fact that the OT was written down over a period of at least 1000 years and that we don't know many of the contributors (p. 4).
To be continued...